Deconstructing coverage of the Krstic verdict

This article from August 2001 is entirely typical of the coverage that greeted The Hague Tribunal’s guilty verdict for genocide against a major Serbian military commander. We have added comments below to illustrate how the western media failed to carry out even the most basic research before reporting their conclusions.

46 years for Serb guilty of genocide By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Hague (Filed: 03/08/2001) 

A SENIOR Bosnian Serb officer was convicted of genocide yesterday for the murder of more than 7,000 Muslims at Srebrenica. It is the first such verdict for crimes committed in Europe since the Nuremberg trials half a century ago. 

Radislav Krstic: sentenced to 46 years in prison 

Gen Radislav Krstic, 53, was sentenced to 46 years in prison by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, its harshest sentence to date. Krstic twitched nervously as the panel of three judges declared him guilty of genocide, persecution and terror for his role in the massacre in the UN “safe haven” six years ago. “You are guilty, General Krstic, of genocide,” said the presiding judge after detailing Europe’s worst single atrocity of recent times. “Individually, you agreed to evil and that is why the tribunal chamber convicts you today.” Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister, called the ruling a landmark decision. “The verdict shows that no one can hide behind the excuse that they were only obeying orders,” he said. 

The report accords the tribunal and the international community unquestioning trust.  The author was apparently unaware that fundamental questions had been raised about the legality of the court under the UN Charter or concerns raised about the way the tribunal had replaced the Statute for its operation – which had been written and approved by the UN Security Council – with an entirely different one written by itself.  Among the new powers it awarded itself was the ability to write new international law (despite the Security Council’s strict instruction that it should enforce only existing international law).  This was used to create the new and highly controversial crime of ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’, or Just Convict Everyone as it came to be known.  This ‘crime’ was used to secure all the tribunal’s genocide convictions.

The mild-mannered monster of Srebrenica By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Hague (Filed: 03/08/2001) 

GENERAL Radislav Krstic looked the picture of bourgeois respectability as he sat in the dock of international justice, dressed in a dark business suit and an impeccable white shirt. But the 255-page judgment of the United Nations war crimes tribunal laid out yesterday in unanswerable detail how this mild-mannered man oversaw the worst atrocity committed in Europe since the Nazis. 

The ‘unanswerable detail’ presented in this case – and all others – was nothing of the sort. The tribunal’s evidence was always a combination of unverified (and unverifiable) accounts by anonymous witnesses claiming to have been eyewitnesses; forensic and DNA evidence collected by the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), an American run organisation with Bosnian Muslims making up 93% of its staff, which – because laws had been passed to give it complete immunity – merely reported its conclusions to the tribunal without making any of the primary evidence available to the court for independent examination; and a mass of hearsay and other unsatisfactory material such as transcripts of radio intercepts unbacked by original recordings.

Krstic, sentenced to 46 years in prison for genocide, took command of the Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb army on July 13, 1995, the day it began “a joint criminal enterprise to kill all the military age men” in the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. The town was blocking Serb plans to link their territory into a single break-away republic and the aim of the operation was to “guarantee that the Bosnian Muslim population would be permanently eradicated from Srebrenica”. 

General Krstic had been in a Belgrade hospital for the two weeks before taking up his new command appointment on 13 July.  Serious complications from wounds sustained in fighting earlier in the conflicts had required urgent and extensive treatment.  He was still convalescent. As a consequence, the first task he was given was to draw up the plans for Bosnian Serb forces to take control of the nearby safe area of Zepa.  He was not involved at all in the events at Srebrenica.  As regards, the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica, more than 26,000 were safely evacuated at their own choice to Tuzla.  A further 12,000 left the safe area on the night of 10/11 July to make their way towards Muslim lines.  Of this group, at least 4,000 men were members of the 28th division of the Bosnian Muslim Army.  The small BSA force (around 200), which had taken Srebrenica without a shot being fired, were fully taken up in ensuring that this large group of Bosnian Muslims did not turn its attention to lightly-armed Serbian villages that lay along their route.

Women, children and old men were separated and deported in buses, with the help of UN peacekeepers, who provided petrol. The men were then slaughtered in a six-day massacre by police, militia, regular infantry units and the 10th Sabotage Detachment, all operating under Krstic’s Drina Corps Command. Troops under his direct command participated in the mass execution of 1,200 men – all but one of them in civilian clothes – at the Branjevo military farm. Between 1,000 and 1,500 Muslim men were taken to the Kravica warehouse where they were machine-gunned or killed with hand grenades. The judgement noted: “The next morning, the soldiers called out to see if any of the wounded men were still alive. Upon identifying some wounded prisoners, the guards made some of them sing Serb songs and then killed them. A water tank was used to wash the blood off the asphalt.” 

Accounts of what happened at both the Branjevo military farm and the Kravica warehouse were founded entirely on uncorroborated evidence from men who claimed to have survived the massacres by playing dead.  The Kravica story was swiftly discredited by pictures showing that the internal damage was obviously inconsistent with the stories they told – at Kravica, for example, the grenades allegedly thrown in to the enclosed and confined space had no effect whatsoever on flimsy wooden fencing inside the warehouse.  Nor was bullet damage on the walls anywhere near the scale that would be expected from indiscriminate use of powerful automatic weapons.

At other sites the men were forced to kneel on the edge of mass graves, with their hands bound by metal wire behind their backs, before being shot in relays with automatic rifles. Bulldozers were used to shunt the bodies into the pits and cover them with earth. The Zvornik Brigade Engineering Company set up powerful lights, allowing the industrial-scale murder to continue late into the summer night. At the Grbavci school, where more than 1,000 prisoners were held, the men were each given a glass of water before being taken out and shot. 

No solid, independently corroborated evidence has ever been produced to back any of these claims.

The tribunal disallowed the evidence of a Nato radio intercept, played during the trial, in which Krstic allegedly said to his deputy: “Kill them all, we don’t want a single one alive.” UN investigators have found only 2,000 of the bodies. The tribunal said the rest, listed as missing by the Red Cross, had been dug up and removed in late 1995 in a systematic effort to destroy evidence. 

The tribunal was quite right to disallow this intercept evidence because it was unsupported by original recordings.  That reference to it in the tribunal’s judgement was entirely gratuitous and improper.  The investigators referred to were nothing to do with the UN.  It is not clear that any professional search for bodies was ever carried out at this time. 

The conviction of Krstic is a first step towards redeeming the honour of the UN, which contributed to the calamity by drawing refugees into a sanctuary that could not be defended without air support the West was unwilling to provide. Britain, America and France opposed the creation of five UN “safe havens”, but gave in to pressure from Muslim countries on the UN Security Council which were demanding that something must be done to stop ethnic cleansing by the Serbs. 

The conviction of Krstic did nothing to redeem the honour of the UN.  Had the Bosnian Muslim government wanted to defend Srebrenica, it had an entire, very well-armed division of its army, embedded in excellent defensive positions, to do the job for them.  

Britain also refused to contribute troops to the Srebrenica mission, regarding the enterprise as folly. The short straw fell to a small contingent of lightly armed Dutch soldiers, who were denied air support as the Bosnian Serb forces tightened the noose on the enclave. In a final humiliation, the Dutch forces were compelled to draw up a register of 240 Muslim men in their area of control and turn them over to the Drina Command. Few were ever seen again. 

It was never the role of Dutchbat to defend Srebrenica. They had neither the manpower nor the mandate to do this.  The town was abandoned by the Bosnian Muslim Army on orders from the Izetbegovic government.

The tribunal is now hoping to move up the chain of command to Gen Ratko Mladic, the former chief of the Bosnian Serb army, who was filmed giving sweets to Muslim children in Srebrenica and fussing about their welfare. The judge said the sweets were taken back as soon as the cameras were turned off. Krstic has agreed to testify against Mladic, accusing him of switching the operation from ethnic cleansing to outright genocide. 

The judges entered the realms of fantasy here.  There were several TV crews filming in Srebrenica town throughout the day.  No pictures of sweets being taken back have ever emerged.  If Krstic (an entirely innocent man) was persecuted into giving evidence to support the Mladic prosecution, that is hardly surprising. The tribunal’s ‘plea-bargaining’ practices were described by one humanitarian agency as tantamount to torture.

Also awaited is Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president, who signed an order in the spring of 1995 commanding the elimination of the Srebrenica enclave. Both are still in hiding, dodging arrest by Nato-led troops from the UN Stabilisation Force in Bosnia, but it is now just a matter of time before they are delivered to The Hague. In June the Yugoslav authorities handed over former president Slobodan Milosevic, who is charged with the mass murder and deportation of ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo war. He is expected to face genocide charges for his role in orchestrating the atrocities in Bosnia. After eight years’ work – with a budget of £65 million a year and a staff of 1,100 – the tribunal has finally started reeling in its catches. 

Milosevic was illegally seized from his home by NATO forces who were operating illegally on sovereign Serbian territory.  His extradition to The Hague was also illegal. During the 4 years of the prosecution case against Milosevic, no hard evidence to support the genocide charges was brought before the court.  Not a shred.

But yesterday’s sentence, read out by a French-speaking judge, did not take anyone much closer to understanding how a benign-looking man like Krstic could have done such a thing. 

The answer is that he didn’t do any such thing.  The Srebrenica accusations were unfounded in every respect.