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Bosnia: First War Crimes Trial Takes A Break At The Hague

Prague, 19 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- For more than three months, the prosecution in the first international war crimes trial since the end of World War II presented evidence to prove that Bosnian Serb Dusan Tadic is guilty of unspeakable atrocities committed during the Bosnian Serbs' vicious campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

Now the U.N. Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has taken a break for three weeks for the defense team to travel to Bosnia and arrange for witnesses who are expected to testify that Tadic was never near any of the infamous Serb prison camps where he is accused of war crimes, but instead served out the war as a simple traffic policeman. The defense is scheduled to begin presenting its case on September 10.

For some observers in the heavily-protected Hague courtroom, the prosecution's witnesses turned out to be less damning than had been expected. Few of the more than 70 witnesses who testified told the three-judge panel that they actually saw Tadic committing atrocities. But many claim to have seen him at Serb-run camps in combat fatigues and heavily armed -- bolstering the prosecution's claim that he was a so-called "camp visitor" who could prowl through the Bosnian Serb detention camps at will, mistreating prisoners.

"Almost anybody who felt like it could beat us," one witness told the tribunal.

To prove that Tadic's alleged actions were war crimes and crimes against humanity, the prosecution has drawn a convincing picture of the Serbs' campaign of "ethnic cleansing" -- a term they coined -- that reached its frenzied apogee in the summer of 1992.

It is the prosecution's contention that Tadic's alleged crimes were one small piece of the overall campaign by the Bosnian Serbs to rid territory they coveted of non-Serbs.

The nine-page indictment against Tadic, made public at the opening of his trial in May, charges that the 40-year-old cafe owner and karate instructor helped Serb forces round up civilians from his hometown of Kozarac in western Bosnia in the spring and summer of 1992.

It charges that he herded the civilians into inhuman prison camps at Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje. The charges state that Tadic, along with members of the Serb forces, subjected Bosnian Muslims and Croats inside and outside the camps to what the indictment calls a campaign of terror, including killings, torture, sexual assaults and other physical and psychological abuse.

Because Kozarac was a small town and Tadic a well-known figure, the eyewitnesses who have testified against him say they are certain they are fingering the right man. They say this is no case of mistaken identity, as Tadic claims.

One Muslim witness, Salko Karabasic, 51, told the court he had known Tadic since he was a teenager. He accused Tadic of being armed and giving orders during the round-up of civilians by the Serbs in May, 1992. Another Muslim witness was a childhood friend of Tadic. This man, Nihad Seferovic, 46, testified that he looked on in horror as Tadic slit the throats of two Moslem policeman in their hometown during the round-up.

Another man, Ferid Mujcic, said he had known Tadic casually for years and saw him frequently because he lived just outside Kozarac. When the horrors of the Serb takeover began, Mujcic testified, he saw Tadic -- heavily armed and wearing a camouflage uniform -- separating some of the civilians from a column of Kozarac men who had been rounded up. Their fate is unknown, but Tadic is accused of shooting and killing four men from that column. Later taken to Omarska, Mujcic testified that he saw Tadic in a room where prisoners were being beaten, and he placed Tadic at the scene of a sexual mutilation.

A fourth man who said he had been acquainted with Tadic for five years testified that Tadic forced him to beat another prisoner at Omarska whose head had already been bashed in.

Tadic is accused of rape, beating prisoners to death as well as forcing male prisoners at Omarska to have oral sex with and sexually mutilate each other. The testimony of two eyewitnesses to this scene -- only one of whom said he had seen Tadic among the Serbs present -- is the most grisly and hair-raising yet heard in the prosecution's catalogue of horrors.

While only a handful of witnesses have said they actually saw Tadic beating prisoners, the cumulative weight of all the testimony may still be enough to convict him. The 31 counts against Tadic relating to eight alleged offenses charge him only with being among groups of Serbs committing alleged atrocities. And many witnesses said they saw Tadic near where crimes were convicted, just before or just after.

If found guilty, Tadic faces a maximum life sentence.