FOUR SREBRENICA GENOCIDE SURVIVORS SEVERELY TORTURED INTO FORCED CONFESSIONS
A case against four Srebrenica genocide survivors - Samir Avdic, Nedzad Hasic, Ahmo Harbas and Behrudin Husic - is marked by severe torture and forced confessions. Serb interrogators are on record for using knives to carve crude Orthodox crosses on the shoulders of tortured prisoners. The human rights groups have asserted that the confessions had been forced and that there was no evidence to support the convictions.
Republished in accordance with the Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Justice can be a tricky business. Some 8,000 men and boys were killed in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. And while the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) victims have been seeking some form of justice ever since, Bosnian Serb authorities are doing the same by trying Bosniak men for the murder of four Serb men and one Bosniak man in a forest that has become synonymous with the Srebrenica massacre.
What happened in that forest, where thousands of Bosniak men fled after the fall of Srebrenica to Serb forces, is what Bosnian Serb authorities hope will tip the scales of justice. The question now is this: Will the sentencing of a group of Bosniak men for the murder of four Serb men and one Muslim help to balance out the deaths of 8,000?
The war crimes case, which has dragged on in the Republika Srpska courts for 13 long years, is wrought with legal ambiguities, political obstruction and bizarre circumstances.
On 4 March 2009, a local court in Bijeljina (Republika Srpska) sentenced 43-year-old Samir Avdic for murdering a Bosniak man, Munib Mustafic, from Srebrenica, while fleeing from Bosnian Serb forces. The court sentenced Avdic to five years in prison, minus the three years he had already spent in custody following his initial arrest in 1996.
"In my client's case, all human rights conventions and legal procedures were violated. The case, where no material evidence was found, is marked by humiliation, torture, threats, severe beatings and a false confession," Damir Alagic, Avdic's newly appointed lawyer, told ISN Security Watch.
The court based its sentence solely on Avdic's signed confession given to police investigators immediately following his arrest - despite claims from psychiatrists and medical examiners that the confession was given after days of brutal interrogation. Medical records state that Avdic had suffered broken ribs and a broken leg, head injuries and hand wounds and that interrogators had used a knife to carve a crude Orthodox cross on his shoulder. However, according to the signed confession, the injuries and the carving were inflicted upon the defendant by other members of the group with whom he fled to the forest.
Out of five medical examiners who participated in the case trials in 1997, 1998 and 2009, four concluded that Avdic was mentally unstable and unfit to stand trial or to sign a confession.
During the latest trial, Avdic denied having confessed to the murder, claiming that he had signed documents presented to him by investigators and prosecutors without understanding their contents. Aside from the confession, no additional evidence was produced, nor was the body of Mustafic ever found, though it was determined that he was killed during the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica.
A chain of tragedies
Avdic was in born in Bratunac, a small town near Srebrenica which fell to Bosnian Serb forces in the summer of 1992. Prior to the Serb military offensive, many Bosniak men fled to Srebrenica, while women and children remained behind. While Serb forces overtook Bratunac, Avdic's wife, mother, six-year-old daughter and dozens of other family members were killed. Over 3,000 Bosniak civilians were killed in Bratunac during the offensive.
In the days between 11-15 July 1995, two years after being designated a UN Safe Area, Srebrenica became the scene of the worst massacre in the Bosnian war, with Bosnian Serb army, police and paramilitary forces killing up to 8,000 men and boys, most of them while trying to reach territory controlled by the Bosnian army, some 55 kilometers away.
The Bosnian Serb army easily disarmed some 400-strong Dutch UN forces. Women and children found shelter in the Potocari UN base near Srebrenica, while the men, both civilians and disarmed soldiers, fled to the surrounding forests.
Following UN negotiations with Serb troops, some 25,000 women were [forcibly] transferred by bus from the Potocari base to territory under the control of the Bosnian army.
UN peacekeepers handed over to the Bosnian Serb forces about 5,000 Muslims who had been sheltering at the Potocari base, allegedly in return for the release of 14 Dutch peacekeepers who were being held captive at the Nova Kasaba base near Srebrenica.
Witnesses estimate that there were between 10,000 and 15,000 men attempting to flee Srebrenica through the forest, and that they had divided themselves up into hundreds of individual groups to avoid ambushes. Some 3,500 of those men made it safely to the city of Tuzla on 16 July. The rest were killed, captured or trapped behind Serb lines.
One of the groups that managed to escape from Srebrenica, but failed to make it out of Serb-controlled territory, was the "Zvornik Seven," of which Avdic was a member. After the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, Avdic and six other men remained hidden in the forest for nearly 11 months, near Poljanice, only a few kilometers from besieged Srebrenica.
According to their testimonies, they survived on a diet largely of leaves, grass and snails. The high summer temperatures caused dehydration and finding water sources was a continual problem. A cave in a nearby mountain provided shelter from Serb patrols during the daylight hours, while nights were spent foraging for food.
On 11 May 1996, unaware that the war had ended six months earlier, the group came upon a NATO Implementation Forces (IFOR) patrol and surrendered, asking to be transferred to territory under the control of the Bosnian army.
However, en route to Tuzla, they were intercepted by a Republika Srpska police patrol, who claimed that the seven were wanted for murder. The Bosnian Serb police demanded that IFOR hand them over for questioning. The men were transferred to the city of Zvornik, in Republika Srpska, where they were charged with the murder of four Serb men, while Avdic was additionally charged with the murder of Mustafic, the Bosnian Muslim.
According to their statements to the local media and from IFOR members present at the interrogations, the men were severely beaten by both police investigators and inmates while held in custody, forced to endure sleep deprivation and then tortured into signing documents that are believed to be their alleged confessions. Mysteriously, following the December 1998 retrial, the transcripts and signed confessions disappeared, and the 2009 trial was forced to rely on the 1998 verdict for evidence of the confession.
In the case files, ISN Security Watch discovered that the members of the group confessed to the murder of four men from Milici. The alleged confession stated that after the murder they cut the bodies of the victims, burned and buried them. As for Munib Mustafic, Avdic confessed that he murdered him in August 1995 in the cave in which they were hiding for hoarding salt.
In the quick trial, three of the men - Nedzad Hasic, Ahmo Harbas and Behrudin Husic - were sentenced by a Zvornik court in May 1997 to 20 years in prison. The others were released due to lack of evidence. The allegedly murdered Munib Mustafic, whom police said was the eighth member of the group, was never indicted. (It remains unclear to this day how Bosnian Serb authorities determined that Mustafic was murdered in the forest.)
Interestingly, the court accepted the argument put forth by Avdic's defense team (assigned by the Bosnian Serb authorities) that in a "state of war a Bosniak, enemy soldier was not a protected object," referring to Mustafic. The acceptance by the court of this argument is rather contradictory given that Mustafic and Avdic were both Bosniaks.
The members of the group were also sentenced to an additional year in prison for the possession of a large amount of firearms and explosive devices on the territory of Republika Srpska. The defendants confessed in 1996 that they had a single rifle in their possession, but deny the existence of any other weapons.
In the retrial in December 1998, the sentences for Hasic and Harbas were upheld while Husic was sentenced to 11 years for involvement in murdering one of the men. The previously released Avdic, who at that time lived in US, was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for murdering Mustafic, but the sentence was reduced to six years.
Both processes were regarded as unjust by the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina and human rights groups, who asserted that the confessions had been forced and that there was no evidence to support the convictions.
The convictions seem to have been based almost solely on self-incriminating statements signed by the defendants after they had been tortured or ill-treated by Zvornik police in the original investigative procedures. International Police Task Force representatives present at the police interrogation confirmed that the defendants had been beaten by police investigators.
Legal experts and international monitors claimed that little other evidence was produced to sustain the murder charges. Only partial remains of the bodies of two of the murdered Bosnian Serbs were found, while the other two have never been found. The court refused to obtain blood samples from the remains to be analyzed and matched with blood stains found on the clothes of some of the defendants.
Murat Tahirovic, the head of an association of Bosnian prison camp inmates, which provided legal help for Avdic, said that the trials were highly politicized from the beginning and that all seven men were victims of a dysfunctional system.
"These trials, from 1997 until today have nothing to do with the law or punishing murderers, rather with Bosnian Serb efforts to equalize the crimes from Srebrenica massacre. With this case they are trying to say that maybe Serbs killed Bosniaks in Srebrenica, but Bosniaks were killing each other as well," Tahirovic told ISN Security Watch.
"I can't say whether Avdic is guilty or not, but if Republika Srpska cares about Srebrenica Bosniaks, why didn't they punish the murders of the rest of the 8,000 people killed?" he asked.
"Several reports noted that around 25,083 people from Republika Srpska were involved in the events in Srebrenica. We prepared a file of 430 persons directly involved in the Srebrenica massacre who are still working in the entity institutions. The question is, why Republika Srpska authorities so far have not charged anybody for the Srebrenica massacre or made any arrests," Tahirovic said.
In January 1999, the Republika Srpska Justice Ministry decided to exchange three of the indicted men for three Bosnian Serbs serving sentences for war crimes in Tuzla, in the Bosniak-Croat run Federation entity, and soon afterward amnestied them, while the Federation Justice Ministry moved to temporarily release Hasic, Husic and Harbas.
All three have fled the country. ISN Security Watch has learned that Hasic and Harbas currently live in Switzerland, holding Swiss citizenship, and that authorities there have refused to hand them over to Republika Srpska. Husic lives and works in Croatia. Furthermore, all members of the group have been deemed mentally and physically handicapped as a result of their months of hiding in the forest and the subsequent police torture.
Following his initial release, Avdic lived in the US on a temporary visa until 2000. He remarried and had a child. In March 2007, he was arrested for assault and reckless driving, but charged only with being a fugitive from a foreign country. Acting on a warrant issued by Republica Srpska in 1998, the US extradited Avdic in August 2007 to authorities there.
After his deportation, Avdic gave a new statement to the court claiming that Mustafic had not been a member of their group and that he had not had contact with the victim following the fall of Srebrenica.
"After that I never saw him again. I signed the confession document but the content was written by the prosecutor […]I don't know how they came up with the information but I did not tell them anything," Avdic wrote in the statement obtained by ISN Security Watch. He also denied his previous statement that the he had not been severely beaten by police investigators in Zvornik. The original 1996 confession said his injuries had been inflicted by Hasic.
"For Samir Avdic, the war is still not over. He is the victim of the leftovers of war propaganda while some figures are trying to build their political careers on his case. This is all about bad people in very influential positions," Alagic said.
The lawyer also said that even now, some Bosnian Serb authorities are trying to pressure Avdic into not withdrawing his confession and implicating wartime Bosniak officials from Srebrenica by threatening to issue an extradition request for his 7-year-old son now living in the US and offering to reveal the location of the remains of his slain wife and daughter.
Alagic says he is sure that with new witnesses, new evidence and expert testimonies, Avdic and the other members of the "Zvornik Seven" group will soon be freed.
Anes Alic is a senior writer for ISN Security Watch, based in Sarajevo. He is also the co-founder and executive director of ISA Consulting, based in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv. Republished for "Fair Use" in accordance with the Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.