Monday, November 15, 2010

Witness Recounts Srebrenica Autopsies

Tolimir trial hears of difficulties faced by pathologists examining victims’ remains. By Velma Saric - International Justice - ICTY TRI Issue 669, 12 Nov 10

The trial of Zdravko Tolimir, the former assistant commander for military intelligence and security in the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, this week heard how pathologists struggled to carry out autopsies on the remains of victims of the Srebrenica massacre.

Tolimir is charged with genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war committed between July and November 1995 against Bosniaks in Srebrenica and Zepa, two former enclaves in eastern Bosnia.

According to the indictment, Tolimir helped, supervised and authorised the organised detention, execution and burial of thousands of Muslim men and boys, following the realisation of a joint plan “whose basis had been the elimination of the Srebrenica and Zepa enclaves”.

Prosecution witness Christopher Lawrence, a pathologist from Australia, was a former leader of the tribunal prosecution forensic team. In 1998, he and his team carried out autopsies on the remains of 883 individuals exhumed from mass graves in the Srebrenica area.

In February 2007, Lawrence testified in the trial of Vujadnin Popovic, a former assistant of the chief of security of the Drina corps of the VRS. This week, prosecutor Abeer Hasan read a resume of his statement in the Popovic trial – which was included as evidence in the Tolimir trial.

“Dr Lawrence led a team of people charged with the autopsy of… remains of people from locations related to the fall of Srebrenica, such as the dam near Petkovci, seven further locations along the road toward Cancari, the road toward Hodzici as well as Liplje and Zeleni Jadar,” Hasan read.

According to the indictment, Tolimir is charged with responsibility for the execution of about 1,000 Bosniaks at the dam near the village of Petkovci, in the Zvornik area, on July 14, 1995.

“The autopsies were carried out at the morgue in Visoko, in Bosnia,” Hasan read. “The remains from these graves were brought in bags, in order to be examined by Dr Lawrence and his team. Some bags included complete bodies, while others included only parts thereof. Having reviewed the bodies, they photographed parts of bodies which looked like injuries. All the damaged bones were given to pathologists for examination, and the pathologists reviewed them in order to find the injuries."

In this week's trial, the witness confirmed that his job from May to October 1998 was to “examine exhumed…remains in order to determine the cause of death and the circumstances leading to loss of life”.

The witness said it was a “very difficult task” because the bodies being brought to the Visoko morgue mostly consisted of incomplete remains.

“This fact made it more difficult to determine the cause and method of death of the exhumed victims,” he said.

“Can you tell us something about the remains you had to work with,” Hasan asked.

“These remains were in a state of decay,” the witness responded. “These were people who were already dead for three years. The state of decay differed somewhat, some bodies had a rather large quantity of flesh and bodily fluids, some others were completely skeletised.”

He added that “apart from that, some bodies were more or less complete, with head, chest, stomach or abdomen and the extremities, while some others were a complete mess with no order whatsoever in the body parts available to us”.

“What do you mean when you say ‘a complete mess with no order?’” the prosecutor asked.

“When a dead body enters the state of decay, the tissue, the ligament and everything that keeps the body together between the extremities and the head, also falls apart, so that parts of bodies can get detached,” Lawrence said. “Therefore, in some graves and particularly at sites such as the dam as well as Liplje, these bodies were pretty fallen apart, or rather the extremities were separated.”

According to his testimony, the Australian pathologist and his team had to deal with a large number of bodies.

“We tried to collate these body parts the best we could, but the reality is that it was a truly difficult task,” he continued. “We therefore ended up with a large number of body parts which could not be connected one to the other. The only practical way was DNA analysis... [in Bosnia] there was no technology that could achieve that.”

Lawrence's conclusion after reviewing the post-mortem remains of these 883 people was that the majority had been killed “by firearms” and that in most cases they had not been combatants who died during fighting, but rather victims of executions.

Having reviewed his reports, the witness said that there were “254 practically complete bodies, of which 203 had died by firearms, and in 50 others the cause of death could not be precisely determined”.

He clarified that there were various criteria used to determine the cause of death. “For example, finding a bullet stuck in the tissue or the bone, X-ray filming or analyses used to determined the bullet's trajectory, or finding fragments of metal in bone parts,” he said.

“You also mention ‘probable’ and ‘possible’ injuries. Why do you believe that this is relevant?” Hasan asked.

“We tried to give the tribunal as much information as possible,” Lawrence answered. “These were hardly reviewable bodies, in a well advanced state of decay because they were buried, exhumed, than buried again. The bodies were practically broken and body parts were torn apart, particularly in the cases of the dam site and the Liplje site.”

The accused Tolimir, who is defending himself, wanted to know in cross-examination how the pathologist “distinguished combatants from non-combatants”.

The witness answered that “it is fact that many bodies were found with ligatures on their hands and eyes” and that many victims, judging by the autopsy results, were older or sick people, as well as women and children, so that “the only logical conclusion” was that they had not taken part in any armed conflict.

He added that this claim was also supported by the fact that their bodies were hidden and transferred from primary to secondary mass graves.

The first indictment against Tolimir was presented on February 25, 2005, and he was arrested on May 31 2007. On December 16, 2009, he pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.

View the original article here

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