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Bosnia: Muslim Commander Charged In Pre-Srebrenica Atrocities

When Bosnian Serb militias massacred more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995, they imprinted the name of the town of their crime -- Srebrenica -- on the world's consciousness. The tragedy came to be known, in the words of U.S. writer George Will, as "Europe's worst atrocity since the Second World War." Less known, however, was an earlier campaign by Bosnian Muslims against their Serb neighbors. This week, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia starts the war crimes trial of Naser Oric. The former Bosnian Muslim commander is charged with leading a three-year fury of murder and plunder prior to the Srebrenica massacre.

Prague, 5 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Naser Oric is the first Bosnian Muslim to be tried in connection with the tragic events surrounding the fall of the so-called "UN safe haven" in the town of Srebrenica.

Although it was supposed to be protected by Dutch-led UN troops, the town is remembered around the world as the place where Serb forces slaughtered thousands of Bosnian Muslims.

Marko Klarn, a journalist with long experience covering the tribunal's proceedings for the local SENSE news agency, told RFE/RL that it is routine for Serb defendants to defend their behavior at Srebrinica by saying that they were responding to earlier brutal provocations by Bosnian Muslims. That was an argument used, for example, by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"One of the defense theses [of Serb defendants] was always that the events in 1992 and, 1993, you know, the incursions, killings, destruction of the [Serb] villages [by Muslims] and so on had accumulated hatred -- some kind of need for revenge," Klarn said.

Klarn said there is some truth to this claim.

"Of course, I mean, you cannot deny that all those events were...feeding each other -- from one side there had been either a siege, then they tried to break the siege, they tried to... to... you know, it was just the usual vicious circle [of violence]," Klarn said.
Oric faces charges that as a military policeman in 1992 and later as a top commander of Srebrenica's Muslim forces, he bore responsibility for the murders of Serb civilians and prisoners as well as attacks on Serb villages.

Oric faces charges that as a military policeman in 1992 and later as a top commander of Srebrenica's Muslim forces, he bore responsibility for the murders of Serb civilians and prisoners as well as attacks on Serb villages and widespread destruction and plunder of private and public properties.

Now aged 37, Oric was only 28 when he was brigadier, his highest rank. He denies all charges against him.

Much of the Muslim population of Bosnia was outraged last year when troops of SFOR, the international peace force in Bosnia, captured Oric and delivered him to the tribunal in The Hague. There had for some time been an indictment prepared against him, but the tribunal had not made it public. Many Muslims considered him a hero for his defense of Muslims at Srebrenica.

When the weak Dutch-led UN military unit protecting the Srebrenica enclave collapsed in the face of a Serb onslaught, the Serb forces rounded up 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim men and boys and executed them.

Oric, however, had already abandoned the enclave sometime before. A key question that remains open is whether the Dutch had forewarned him of the coming disaster or whether he had left of his own volition.

Massood Shadjareh, chairman of the London-based Muslim Human Rights Commission, said he believes it wrong to excuse any part of the Serb massacre on early predations by Muslims. He argues that Muslims were the less numerous and weaker group -- the natural victims.

Instead, he said that all evidence points not to a sudden, impulsive rush to revenge, but rather to a cold-blooded, deliberate, and planned attack consistent with what the Serbs undertook elsewhere in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia.

"I don't really believe that the situation in the massacre at Srebrenica was anything other than a preplanned and a cool and calculated sort of genocide," Shadjareh said.

But Shadjareh said he doesn't believe the tribunal's charges against Olic are misguided.

"I think that at the time of war there are things happening that are totally and absolutely unacceptable and we as a civilized community internationally -- we need to hold everyone to account," Shadjareh said.

That said, Shadjareh argues that circumstances mitigated any guilt that Olic might carry.

"But we also need to understand that there comes a time that the whole survival of a group or a nation is in question," Shadjareh said. "Then we need to understand that standards actually change, ...and when genocide is taking place we have to sort of also understand that people have to take some extreme measures just to defend themselves."

As for the trial, the prosecution and defense each has four months to present its case before the tribunal in the Netherlands.