Experiences from the courtroom
Experiences from the courtroom
During the project, Mediacenter Sarajevo searched more than 100,000 evidentiary materials from the ICTY court file database.
Photo: The First Draft of History: Journalists - Witnesses Before the Hague Tribunal
The book The first draft of history: Journalists - witnesses before the Hague Tribunal was born out of the need to understand and convey the experience of journalists who testified before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Below is one of the chapters from the book, written by Elvira Jukic-Mujkic.
After documenting the killings, destruction and other crimes in the wars that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 90s, dozens of journalists gave their contribution to punishing those who issued orders and the perpetrators by testifying in trials in The Hague. In a series of court processes lasting more than two decades, what journalists saw and the way they understood the events they witnessed were an important part of establishing the facts about the committed war crimes, including genocide. In addition to validating the details of their war reports, many of them had to defend their profession, and some of the world’s top journalists felt like they were on some sort of trial - both for themselves and for journalism.
Some journalists welcomed and immediately accepted the requests to testify in The Hague. Others saw in these requests the danger of being used and deceived, some felt it was a chance to finally tell everything they had seen, and some saw it as another professional duty for which they needed old war notebooks to remind themselves of the time and events they had written down.
“You’re going over all your notebooks, you’re being invited to remember things that aren’t in your notebooks. A court case is, as the saying goes in English, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, I mean it all has to add up to a case. So, there was the sort of technical, legal prep with the lawyers, with the prosecutors, but there was also the kind of, the psychological preparation,” explains Ed Vulliamy, adding that part of the preparation was a reunion in the hotel with other witnesses, whom he had last seen as prisoners in camps during the war.
For his colleague, French journalist Florence Hartmann, coming to testify was not the result of an initiative by the prosecution or the defense, but her own suggestion. In her position as spokeswoman for the Prosecutor’s Office, she followed the trials in detail, including the trial of former JNA officer Veselin Šljivančanin for war crimes in Vukovar.
“In my case, it was important for each answer to be as short as possible, because each additional sentence creates room for the other side to doubt what you are saying. So I was told that I should restrain myself, say what I have to say and not go around it,” says Hartmann. “A witness comes for one small matter, everyone has their own role, so that the whole story can be reconstructed. Everyone needs to establish one particular matter and not go any further.”
Slavoljub Kačarević, an editor in the early 1990s based in Belgrade, interviewed Šljivančanin in 1991, which was the reason for the request for him to testify in The Hague, which he accepted. He says that in the meantime he was “thinking about what I am doing there and what I will testify about, and that something will trick me, they will use me somehow. So I had no illusions about the court, I simply had no trust.” He states that he did not think about the reactions in Belgrade as much as about how the accused, who had been in prison for a long time, would react.
“Since I knew Šljivančanin particularly - after that interview we got to know each other and saw each other often - and that captain Radić too - not so often - but I knew these people, I simply thought about how they would react and I came to the conclusion that, since we knew each other, they wouldn’t expect anything bad from me and so why not?” says Kačarević, who prepared by reading his previously published articles. “I read them several times, constantly wondering what was expected of me there, why the prosecution, the prosecutor, put me on the list. What do they need me for? And I kept thinking that they had found something in those articles that I didn’t see.”
Going to The Hague and preparing for trial
After talking with the investigators, accepting the request to testify and organizing the trip to The Hague, the journalists explained that they had similar experiences with what happened between landing at the airport and the moment they sat in the witness stand. Upon arrival in the Netherlands, most say they were met at the airport by a person who had a visible code word displayed on a board, whom they would meet and who would take them to a hotel in The Hague, where they would check in anonymously or at least not under their own name. Before the trial in which they were scheduled to appear, they would be driven to the courthouse and escorted by security to the premises in front of the courtroom.
When he got to the hotel, former British Sunday Times reporter Andrew Hogg remembers he had some free time and decided to go look around The Hague. He called a cab and the driver, whom he quickly found out was a Croat, just looked at him and asked if he was witness. “And I thought, so much for all this clandestine stuff.”
BBC reporter Jacky Rowland got the impression that there was generally not an enormous amount of support available for witnesses, but she recalls that they did offer her some kind of physical protection if she felt that she needed it. As she was in London at the time, she felt she did not need an escort, but when she went to Belgrade, it was not the same case: “We all know what had been going on in Belgrade. I mean, we were talking about people like Zoran Đinđić. Obviously, I wasn’t a politician or any public figure like that in Belgrade, but it was a time of instability and unpredictability and there were assassinations going on in public life. And there were other journalists. You know, Dejan Anastasijević, he had a grenade or something chucked in his, through his window and he had to move to Brussels. Our late colleague. I felt that I needed to be cautious.”
In his interview with Mediacentar Sarajevo BBC journalist Jeremy Bowen recalled the protocol, where they would meet him and put him in a hotel, and then before testifying they would prepare him by taking him through the evidence to remind him of the details.
“I was in the witness programme, so when you arrive at the airport they meet you airside, take your passport, take you through, protect your identity and bring you in. And for a journalist, that’s not a problem, it’s sort of slightly amusing. But clearly, if you come from a village in, I don’t know, if you’ve been ethnically cleansed, if you come from Srebrenica, if you’re a survivor of genocide, then it was a much bigger deal,” says Bowen.
The events at the beginning of the war in Vukovar were a traumatic experience for radio announcer Zvezdana Polovina, in which her husband was killed and she was expelled. When they called her a decade later from The Hague to notify her of the possibility of testifying, it was a traumatic call for her, because they asked her if she wanted to be a protected witness, if she wanted her face seen or voice distorted. She describes the very journey to the Netherlands as distressing, because she was not sure what could happen to her, she was traveling alone, she was fearful and she had doubts about what to say. And then she decided: “What I know, I will answer, what I don’t know - I don’t know, if I don’t remember something - I don’t remember, I’ll just tell them that.”
Before going to the trial as a witness, Martin Bell was invited by the accused Radovan Karadžić to his cell to talk. Driven by curiosity, he agreed, despite the prosecution team’s opposition. He describes the meeting with Karadžić as cordial, in which they did not discuss the testimony at all, and Bell thanked him for being so helpful when he was a young reporter when the war broke out.
“He was always the most open with us. He felt that he had a case to make to the world and we were the means of making it. And it was only when he felt that the world had turned against him, this was August ‘94, that he cut us off completely, and we were never allowed to go to Pale again until the end of the war,” says Bell.
He says he found testifying challenging, first of all because of the gravity of the offenses and the penalties that were being sought by the prosecution. In addition, he points out that the testimony took place many years after the events he was supposed to talk about, but he was able to rely on his personal memories, his notebooks and TV reports from that time.
Entering the courtroom
The journalists’ confrontation with the accused caused different reactions: some of the accused smiled, others questioned them themselves, and some tried to discredit them.
“I think I watched Hadžihasanović sort of settle back like this, with a halfsmile on his lips. I don’t think I’d ever met him before, but I think he was just intrigued by this, by the fact that the journalist was giving evidence,” recalls Hogg, who was asked to confirm that he had interviewed Abdel Aziz, the Mujahideen leader in BiH, with a pass obtained from the Army of RBiH. “The second trial with Delić was slightly different in that I was asked a couple of strange questions about the ideology of the Mujahideen, of which I’m by no means an expert.”
Bowen describes testifying as quite a precise operation, without really much room for emotion. The precise questions and the transcribing required a lot of concentration and at the end of the day fatigue set in.
“Some of these trials, I think in the Karadžić trial, I was in the witness stand for two days or something and Karadžić was questioning me and he tried to discredit me. He brought up things from the Middle East, he did all sorts of things, but I expected that from him. And I think I dealt with it.”
The defense also tried to discredit Bowen in the case of Prlić et al., when Slobodan Praljak’s attorney questioned him about the credibility and veracity of a war report. Bowen’s report described how “Croatian propaganda” could be heard from the loudspeaker in Mostar every day, and the defense attorney focused on a detail from Bowen’s documentary - specifically, an audio recording that can be heard as Bowen describes what he saw and heard then. In that part of Bowen’s documentary, a voice is heard over the loudspeaker explaining what the country code for Croatia is, a recording that the defense claimed was not indicative of the propaganda under discussion.
“I don’t make things up. There have been all kinds of, Your Honour, allegations being made about my professionalism. I’ve been a journalist for a long time and I’m telling you I’ve been trained that you don’t make things up. There was no need to make things up in East Mostar. What was happening there was extraordinarily dramatic. That’s the reason why we’re still talking about it 14 years later. It was very dramatic and it was all there. It was all laid out in front of us. I did not make that up. And what’s more, I stand a hundred percent behind what it was I reported there. I had no stake in telling lies about the war, I can assure you,” said Bowen at the trial, after the attorney pressed him about the details of the footage he had used.
Aernout van Lynden also explained in the courtroom, in response to Karadžić’s attempts to discredit him and diminish his level of professionalism, how his reports for Sky News were made.
“My reports were never changed by any editing in London throughout my time in Yugoslavia. I recall only one shot that was once taken out of a story, which the foreign editor decided to do, which was of blood flowing down an injured person’s back, and he felt that this was too graphic and unnecessary. I protested that he should leave my stories alone, and the shot was put back in again. None of my stories were ever edited. Whether this happened to other journalists, that may be the case, but I can’t comment on that. I should point out one other thing here. American television journalists have to send the written part of their stories to their offices in New York or Atlanta beforehand. British television does not do so, does not request that; therefore, the reports were mine and then sent to London and then broadcast, and none of the stories, as far as I’m aware, were changed by editors in London.”
When she entered the courtroom, Zvezdana Polovina first thought that she would only look straight ahead, at the judge. “To my left sat the accused, their defense, I thought there was no way I would look at them, because I thought it would be very hard to see the people responsible for my husband’s death. And not only my husband, but 264 people - 200 of them were exhumed at Ovčara, and as for the 64 people, it isn’t known to this day where their graves are. However, after a while I simply forgot about my intention,” she says and adds: “Mrkšić seemed very depressed, a very sad face, to me it looked either like remorse or sympathy for my testimony. Radić was quite indifferent, neutral, while Šljivančanin was laughing. Yes. His laugh caused a kind of revolt in me and I thought I must do my best to be as good as possible, just so that this man ends up in jail for as many years as possible.”
The first reaction of Kosovo journalist and activist Veton Surroi to the request to testify was that it was a moment of justice for him.
“It’s a process of releasing the memory of the war, of a time period that Kosovo went through, and of course that means repeating all kinds of nightmares.But, especially in the case against Milošević, I felt pressure in the sense of the obligation to contribute as much as possible to making things known, since I thought that it wasn’t only a matter of trying the person in question; it was a trial of a time period and in the end it will be an important part of history, and in that period Kosovo has something to be proud of.”
“It’s weird because you’re in a kind of goldfish bowl,” says British journalist John Sweeney. “The team wants you to have a good time, but there are limits to the conversations you can have and so you’re kind of, you have a feeling of being on your own. And you want to get it right and I respect the rule of law, I believe in it.”
During the Karadžić trial, Independent journalist Robert Block had to clarify the use of common expressions such as “bloodbath” and other similar details, which was another example of journalists’ war reports being analyzed down to the smallest detail. In addition to what they reported about, journalists were questioned about their views on certain situations and events, and in some cases their interpretations of the events they witnessed were also sought.
When they describe their arrival in The Hague and the testimony itself, some of the interviewed journalists focus solely on describing the procedure, the space and the testimony room, while others recall meetings with other witnesses, camp survivors, victims’ families and conversations in the common spaces of hotels.
For Grulović, coming and testifying at The Hague Tribunal represented an experience where these actions were totally part of a controlled system, and he recalled how this included hours of waiting in different rooms.
“I know that I waited for two and a half or three hours in this little room, left to myself. At first, you think, you go over everything in your mind, what to say, how to say it, here, there. However, nervousness sets in after that. In that small closed space, there is no natural air, but some kind of artificial air conditioning. Two steps to the left, two steps to the right, anxiety. I don’t know if they do it on purpose to make the witnesses anxious, just that, to affect the psyche, I don’t know, but I can assume they do,” he told Mediacentar Sarajevo.
“And then, when you go in, you enter the courtroom and there is a protocol there, how to enter, who to address, how, if you should look in the direction of the accused, if you shouldn’t, they tell you all that. When you go outside, when you go through this whole procedure and when you look at that building and when you know that thousands of years of prison for some people who will never see freedom are collected there, it’s a strange feeling, strange. But you experience relief, because you are outside, you are looking at the sky and breathing the air. That’s as a man. As a professional, at the given moment, when I was a witness, I didn’t think that I was a professional at all. Should I remember a certain detail and write something about it when I go out? No. I wasn’t interested in that at all. I couldn’t wait to finish my testimony, to finish the protocol, get on a plane and leave.”
Slavoljub Kačarević also describes a similar protocol and says that, after all the directives and instructions, who will ask what, in what order and other things, and before entering the courtroom, he had a psychiatrist at his disposal who spent the whole day with him during breaks. He recalled that she was “an English Egyptian by birth, a fantastic person, unforgettable, beautiful and smart.”
“She mostly talked, asked how I was doing, some banalities (...) what does that war look like for you, and this and that. During my first meeting with her, I thought that she was also participating in the work of the prosecutor’s office, gathering some information that they might think she could get out of me as a beautiful woman and a skilled conversationalist, right? Of course, that’s not the case, but you are in a specific state of psychosis when they take you around those buildings like that. For example, entering the building of the prosecutor’s office, you go through countless checks and doors. We all thought airports had tight security, but that’s small potatoes compared to this. This is something unimaginable. And then endless corridors, at the end of which there are again doors with bars, with scanners and so on, by the time you get to the prosecutor you go through a maze, you wouldn’t know how to go back on your own,” says Kačarević.
“In that atmosphere, when you are there in that machine, which is big, scary and totally dehumanized, from the look of all that to the treatment, everyone is cordial, but in a way that just irritates,” he says. “So one feels some sort of contempt. It’s a kindness that’s not actually that. It’s just polite behavior, but...Or maybe I was in that mood.”
Former editor and journalist of the Belgrade magazine Vreme, the late Dejan Anastasijević, also gave his contribution to establishing the truth about the crimes committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Because of his reporting during the wars of the 1990s and afterwards, and his willingness to testify in The Hague, he paid the price both in terms of the attitude of society and the country towards him, and also in the form of two hand grenades placed on the window of his apartment in Belgrade. The detonation of one of them caused material damage and sent a strong message to the journalist, who at the time, in 2007, was speaking and writing about killings committed by members of a Serbian special unit, the Scorpions.
In The Hague Diary published in Vreme in 2002, Anastasijević described his experiences with the prosecutor’s “friendly” questioning, and moved on to questions that the former president of the country, Slobodan Milošević, had for him.
“I must admit that I have trepidation because Milošević must be recognized for his exceptional talent for humiliating other people. However, as time passes, my nervousness is leaving me because I notice that the accused, in line with his well-known contempt for journalists, almost did not prepare at all,” wrote Anastasijević, and explained that the accused, despite that, tried to minimize “with contemptuous comments the importance of my testimony and at the end calls me a ‘fifth-rate witness.’”
After his testimony in The Hague, which was watched in Serbia, the Vreme newsroom’s telephone, as described by then editor Dragoljub Žarković, became heated, and apart from a few congratulations on the journalist’s courage, the other calls were insults and threats and messages that “he should not return to Belgrade.”
The importance of every word
As the author of the introductory article in this book well notes, foreign journalists often mention a notebook, while domestic journalists relied more on their memories. In some cases, it was impossible or tactless to have a notebook due to the specific situation they were in and the danger of getting hurt because of the notebook.
For BiH journalist Alija Lizde, a notebook was not an option because he spent months as a camp inmate in horrible and inhumane conditions and the only place he could make notes were his memories. From his interview, you can sense how hard he “pressed the pencil” so that almost three decades later, not even the small details have faded. Zvezdana Polovina also testified based on her memories, about her experiences in the newsroom of Radio Vukovar. and also about what she survived in private.
The sanctity of the accuracy of each written word is best seen in notes such as those that were made, kept and presented to the court by Vulliamy, Bell and Hartmann, and which fit in with the abundance of other evidence, served as connective tissue, confirmed once again other evidentiary material or simply added a drop to the already developed context in which the war crimes being tried took place.
In April 1992 Sead Omeragić, at that time a journalist for Slobodna Bosna, posing as the bodyguard of Fikret Abdić, member of the Presidency of the RBiH, went to Bijeljina where, among others, he met with Željko Ražnatović Arkan, the never prosecuted notorious sower of death in eastern Bosnia. In his interview with Mediacentar Sarajevo, Omeragić describes the various situations that preceded the meeting, which included the wit and street-wise resourcefulness that saved his life when he escaped from Trebinje to Sarajevo. With the dangers of visiting Bijeljina at that time and in such company imprinted in his mind, he returned to Sarajevo and wrote the article Bloody Bajram in Bijeljina, which was dissected in detail ten years later in the Hague courtroom.
“I was quite lost. When I was writing the article, it was like another man was sitting at the desk and writing the article,” he recalls. “There was something in the tension, in all of that, while I was there in Bijeljina. I saw... we also visited the wounded and all kinds of things. People came up to me and said that there were a lot of them killed in some basement and all that kind of thing. The whole situation in Bijeljina is like PTSD for me,” says Omeragić, adding that when he returned to the newsroom, he told the editor everything, but when he was writing the article, he could not remember very many details, so it took him several attempts to write it.
In what he describes today as a state of shock or partial amnesia due to the intensity of the feelings related to his visit to Bijeljina at the beginning of the war in BiH, he says that in the article he wrote, which was published in the paper, a few words slipped through that served as material in the Hague courtroom for discrediting him as a witness.
“And there is one sentence there that I could never have written,” he explains, describing the atmosphere in the newsroom in 1992 as the article was being written, when someone brought some brandy and offered it to him as well. “I didn’t like to drink and so I just took a sip and passed it on, and there is a sentence, no way could I have put it there - especially since we were there for maybe an hour, no more - it says: ‘And so we drank the whole day.’ I never figured out where that sentence came from. Some other people were also sitting at the desk where I was working, writing the article,” Omeragić says, adding that even today, he still does not understand how that sentence got into the article, which is what Momčilo Krajišnik’s defense focused on the most.
If he had known that he would be questioned in court because of this, he says he would have written it differently. “Some sort of PTSD prevailed, after everything I had seen and experienced then. I stayed there about half a day, terrifying,” says Omeragić. He recalls his reaction after the publication of the article: “I see a sentence there that doesn’t belong to me, which simply isn’t correct, I couldn’t have written it there.”
Omeragić describes Slobodan Milošević in the courtroom as quick-witted, inventive in trial, and says that he tries to “lead you on, he has that kind of reflex, he has that kind of education after all.” Omeragić recalled, when he testified that in Bijeljina he had personally seen a JNA general, Marijan Praščević, reporting to Arkan - which indicated that Milošević and the leadership had influence over the paramilitary forces - that Milošević responded that he had not seen it properly.
“And I say, ‘Yes, I did, I saw it.’ He just approached him and greeted him. ‘No, I say, I saw exactly how he took three steps, four, in between, how his knees tightened.’ And he, Milošević, he was angry then, he says: Oh, aren’t you fibbing a tiny bit, he says. And I laughed wholeheartedly. However, at that moment something resounded, banged, and I looked and I saw that the judge, the late Richard May, had banged that gavel of his and the gavel had fallen apart and it had all fallen under his bench. I saw that, under the bench, everyone’s looking for that [part, author’s note], from the gavel. And then he began to shout something, to rage against Milošević, and that’s where it all ended.”
The other journalists who testified were also questioned about what they had published and reported. Radovan Karadžić himself conducted the cross-examination of Martin Bell.
“Although he had his lawyer Peter Robinson sitting beside him, he conducted his own defense. And I think he was trying to assess whether I’d shown any bias in my reporting, which I actually denied. I don’t think I did. Most of my colleagues thought that if anything I was a bit pro-Serb, because I spent so much time with them and I always felt that the answer to the problem lay in their hands, as indeed it did,” recalled Bell.
Jacky Rowland recalls that she originally agreed to give evidence and it suddenly became hugely controversial when the BBC warned that “we have to be careful about what we say afterwards.” She remembers that she was under a lot of pressure, which made her pretty nervous.
“When once I was in and the headphones were on, you know, it was then a case of just getting on with it and answering the questions. Milošević obviously chose to conduct his own defense in court, it was another platform for him to be able to speak and be seen. Although, he, no, I recall now, he didn’t consider himself to be conducting his own defense, he was, within the courtroom, he was conducting his own parallel prosecution of NATO. That’s what he was doing. So he was not really cross examining me as a witness for the prosecution in the case of Slobodan Milošević for genocide and war crimes, he was questioning me as a witness in his own perceived trial of NATO,” says Rowland.
“So he wasn’t really asking me questions so much about my evidence to try to defend himself, he was trying to ask me questions to somehow inculpate NATO and the West in general. The BBC as well, you know, the BBC was western media or whatever, it was just basically... He was taking this opportunity to try to score points against NATO, against the West, against journalists, against the BBC, against media in general. So that was very much what seemed to inform his line of questioning. Yes, so he asked me about reports I’d written, he asked me about events, he asked me more kind of like general philosophical, political, like: Did I consider the BBC to be neutral or unbiased or something. And actually I answered that question, whereas looking back - what we in French call l’esprit de l’escalier, which is that clever thought that you have when you’re going down the staircase afterwards - it wasn’t relevant. You know, in a way I got sucked into, if you like, his alternative parallel trial,” says Rowland, conveying her impression of how Milošević deliberately did
not ask her anything about the events she had witnessed.
The cross-examination was also unpleasant for Branimir Grulović. When he was questioned by the prosecutor, he had the impression that the goal was to discredit him, as he had been warned earlier. “I addressed the prosecutor and said that I’m sorry that the prosecutor hadn’t prepared well and that I wasn’t here to give lectures on television journalism. To which there was a mild chuckle, so to speak, jokingly. But the prosecutor is an expert in his work and he really tried to throw me off balance, while I fiercely tried to stay calm,” Grulović recalled in his interview with Mediacentar Sarajevo.
The cross-examination was the most difficult part of the testimony for Vulliamy, too: “Did I get my notes right? I mean, you’re on the stand, you’re on oath, a man’s liberty, a bestial war criminal’s, but still, you know, is at stake. This is a court of law, it is not a television programme or interview like this one. It’s a very different situation, you’re on oath. Actually, to be honest, the hardest part was trying to sleep between the days on the stand because you adjourned at the end of the day, you might allow yourself a beer or two or three, but any more than that is a bad idea, because you have to be razor sharp the next day. And I think the hardest thing for me was having to relive it all, but then, you know, my experience was nothing really, compared to the real witnesses in this, who were the survivors and the bereaved and the victims and the violated women. They were doing on the stand what no person should ever have to do. They were saying things, they were going into a level of detail in their testimony that they were never going to tell any of us, us journalists. So, you know, it was incredibly stressful.”
Vulliamy describes Karadžić, in whose case he testified, as a crazy, mad, dangerous madman and remembers how Karadžić called him for a pre-trial interview.
“He would be pathetic, he might even be funny if he wasn’t so murderous, if he wasn’t genocidaire, if he wasn’t some kind of cheap imitation of The Third Reich. And he sort of, he asked these buffoon questions, you know: ‘What do you
think about Serbia?’ I mean, this was kind of crazy stuff,” says Vulliamy. “Then the next day, very different, it’s him against me. And he just sort of, you know, I mean, he’s a fool, but he’s not a fool, he was just trying to make two plus two equal five in his defense, but you can’t because it’s four. And at one point he said ‘I suggest every one of you are writing about one death,’…all your people, all your witnesses, all your notes are referring to ‘one’ person killed in Omarska. I said, ‘But I don’t understand the question, but if you’re asking me do I think only one person died in Omarska, then I have to say that the answer is no.’ I mean, it was just the kind of crazy mind games of this utter madman. I mean, it flatters him to call him a madman. You know he’s worse than mad.”
For Kačarević, the experience of testifying in the courtroom, compared to the preparation, was full of unexpected provocative questions.
“I thought they would only ask me what we had been preparing for. But no, there were a lot of new questions that I hadn’t expected at all. I only have impressions now, I don’t remember the details, but I do know that there were surprising questions that were right on the edge of what I had been anxious about. I mean, they were provocative, they were excessive, they were rude. Biased. I hadn’t expected it to be like that, simply because I hadn’t really encountered
it anywhere until then. Until the trial itself, everything had looked much more correct than I had expected and then at the trial itself when it happened, admittedly it was to a small extent, but it did happen, I was extremely surprised. I said, by God, they are still bloody under the skin, even though they pretend to be neutral and nice.”
Prosecution witness Zvezdana Polovina recalls how difficult it was for her to testify when the defense “constantly planted some questions and the cross-examination is actually very difficult, because they jump from topic to topic, in the sentences they try to plant something that I hadn’t said.”
“I had expected that I would speak about what I knew, that I would somehow open my soul and that I was finally in the right place. However, that did not happen. It means I exclusively answer the questions of the prosecutor and their defense. Very briefly the prosecutor’s questions, but there were a lot of questions from their defense,” she recounted. She also described a particularly important moment for her that occurred in the courtroom, before the trial began.
“And so, they [the defense, author’s note] are talking to each other and then this woman, the only woman in their defense, a Mira Tapušković, I think that was her name, and so she says to one of her colleagues, ‘We will deal with this Polovina easily.’ When she said that, and I had had terrible anxiety and I had been afraid of how it would all turn out, and when she said, ‘We will deal with this Polovina easily,’ she said it on purpose so that I could hear it, but she produced in me an effect that she probably hadn’t anticipated, because at that moment I thought Well, you won’t! and I got a certain kind of courage and confidence.”
Former camp inmate Alija Lizde says that during the trial in The Hague, he had the most debates with Slobodan Praljak, an HVO general convicted of war crimes against Bosniaks during the war in BiH. Lizde says that Praljak “tried to draw me into some kind of military talk” about positions, about the army. In contrast to the complex and peculiar questions that some people received and which they felt were being addressed to the wrong people, there were also surprisingly simple questions.
“I was quite surprised by some of the banal questions I was asked by the prosecution. Some very basic things, like ‘Do you recognize this?’ and it was a picture of an AK-47. Well, of course, I mean, everybody and his dog had an AK-47 in Bosnia, that’s the main weapon of that war. But, he was trying to sort of suggest in a way that that was a reason why the people on trial were guilty of something because it was an AK-47. I mean, it’s probably not that straightforward, but it’s what it seemed to me. And, of course, I was a bit taken aback by the level of the basic questions they were asking,” says Tony Birtley.
He added that the prosecution in the case against Naser Orić tried to get him to say something he had not seen.
“I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I’m just saying I didn’t see it.”
John Sweeney also recalled banal questions during a trial for war crimes in Kosovo. He says he remembers that the attorney was attacking him and he was shooting back.
“The defense was saying: ‘You’re just doing PR for NATO, for the Kosovars.’ And I was: ‘No, I’m not, because we shot evidence of the KLA burning down the Serb homes, so we are impartial.’ That doesn’t mean that we’re in the middle on this, because one side had committed war crimes, but nevertheless when the other side breaks the rules of war and burns people’s homes down, we filmed them and it’s in our film,” he said in his interview with Mediacentar Sarajevo.
“Then the defense come on and obviously they are going to try make you out to be, they’re trying to destroy your credibility as a witness and most of the time that means trying to catch you out on evidence and, on the contrary, they didn’t catch me out, I was very clear about what I knew and what I didn’t know. There were moments, I think, where I said, ‘I don’t know,’ which is always the best thing to say, but there were some things, I said, ‘No, I’m not,’ in particular the defense lawyer said - he’s doing his job and that is right and proper - but he’s saying, ‘You’re a propagandist’ or something like this, ‘There’s nothing critical of the KLA’ and I said, ‘No, that’s not true, we filmed the footage of the KLA burning the Serb houses, you can see the smoke.’ What we did was that we filmed it from afar, so that you can see the smoke was rising over the, above another house, so that people couldn’t see that we were filming it, but we said: ‘This is smoke, they’re burning the houses.’ So that was in the documentary. So that showed that we were being fair and honest and aware that the KLA or the Kosovo side or the Kosovo military side had done bad stuff, there it was in the documentary,” says Sweeney.
Testimony as a victory
During the Milošević trial, Kosovo journalist Veton Surroi had a moment of great relief and, as he put it, almost satisfaction with justice.
“At that moment, for me, Milošević was a man who had always been handcuffing someone, not just individually but collectively too. And when he came to the trial for the first time, when the door to the courtroom opened, I saw a big policeman, someone of a Scandinavian type, removing the handcuffs from Milošević so that he could enter the courtroom. It was a moment of satisfaction because this man, who was identified as the one who was putting handcuffs on the opposition, his opponents, the people of Kosovo in general, is now entering the courtroom with handcuffs, and I told him that at the trial. I said - ‘I’m a free man, you are the accused,’” says Surroi.
Lizde was happy and satisfied that his truth played a part in proving war crimes and he felt that he had completed a personal mission “to tell the truth about the hell I went through”. For Jeremy Bowen, the role of the court in general was huge, and he felt that the Tribunal “as well as the search for justice was a search to document what had happened”. Branimir Grulović believes that his testimony was not decisive and that he could not have influenced the fact that Beara was sentenced to life imprisonment.
For Vulliamy, the testimonies of journalists were important, but not crucial. “I mean, I was a small cog in a big wheel. The crucial evidence came from the survivors and the bereaved and then it probably came from military people and people who could prove that this order had been given then and there, from Belgrade or from Pale. I mean, inasmuch as all the people I testified against were convicted, I guess I was a small part in that, but I have no more illusions about my contribution to the trial than I do over the contributions of our journalism during the war, which was basically, I hope professionally, by professional standards, completely pointless. We achieved absolutely nothing during the war. I think we journalists like to flatter ourselves and think that they had an impact, I mean, we had no impact whatsoever.”
“It was slightly surreal in that you get back to London,” says John Sweeney,
“You know, you go for a pint with a mate: ‘So, what have you been up to?’
- Well, just given evidence in The Hague, and, You know, I’ve just been in court in The Hague. What did you do?”