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War crimes tribunal jeopardized by witness tampering

judges October 25, 1996
Web posted at: 10:50 p.m. EDT (0250 GMT)


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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CNN) -- The first war crimes trial since the World War II Nuremberg trials was marred Friday when U.N. prosecutors conceded one of their key witnesses had lied to the Hague court.

Robert Reid, a United Nations war crimes investigator testified that authorities in Sarajevo had forced Dragan Opacic, known as witness "L," to give false evidence against Dusan Tadic, a Bosnian Serb accused of committing atrocities against Muslims and Croats early in the Bosnian conflict.

The disclosure is not only a setback for prosecution charges against Tadic, it could damage the credibility of the war crimes tribunals and hinder efforts to bring justice to others accused of committing atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

The prosecution said in a statement it would investigate Opacic's "very serious allegations" against the Bosnian authorities. "The prosecutor is very concerned at today's revelation ... which may have an impact beyond the Tadic case," it said.

Lie, or be killed

The U.N.'s Reid told the U.N. criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia that Opacic, convicted by a Bosnian court of "serious crimes," had been trained by Bosnian military police to go to the Hague court and lie, or be killed.

Trnopolje

Opacic appeared for the prosecution in mid-August and, in closed session, said he had been a guard at the Serb-run Trnopolje camp where he saw Tadic commit atrocities.

Since then, prosecutors said they had had doubts about Opacic's testimony. "L" was one of 30 witnesses testifying on the first of 33 counts against Tadic.

In a meeting Friday, Opacic told Reid how he had been trained by Bosnian military police in Sarajevo for up to seven hours a day on what to say in court against Tadic.

"Opacic said he had been told that if he refused, he would be executed. By that, I understood, murdered," Reid said, declining to speculate as to why the Bosnian authorities might want to send a "false witness" to the trial.

Accused of ethnic cleansing

Tadic

Tadic, 41, is accused of visiting three camps in northwest Bosnia -- Trnopolje, Omarska and Keraterm -- to kill, torture and rape non-Serbs as part of an "ethnic cleansing" campaign in the region in 1992. He denies the charges.

The disclosure of witness tampering in the case against Tadic doesn't mean the Bosnian Serb is off the hook. But it weakens the prosecution's charges against him, and perhaps other war crimes defendants.

Tadic's trial is the first for war crimes under international law since the Nuremberg trials, in which a court heard charges of atrocities against many top Nazi officers after World War II.

Niemann

Prosecutor Grant Niemann said that after reviewing Opacic's testimony, he was dropping a charge relating to Trnopolje. "Over the past couple of weeks we have been investigating this witness and ... can no longer support (him) as a witness of truth," Niemann told presiding judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald.

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Defense lawyer Michail Wladimiroff told reporters earlier that he had been convinced all along that Opacic had made up his story about being at Trnopolje. "Right from the start it was clear that "L's' testimony didn't ring true," he said.

After Reid's brief testimony, Tadic himself took the stand. Smartly dressed in a blue suit and tie and speaking through an interpreter, the accused took the oath and answered questions on his background from British defense attorney Stephen Kaye.

Raised to ignore ethnic differences

He said that as a child growing up in the mainly-Muslim village of Kozarac, he had no Serb friends and had been brought up to ignore ethnic differences.

He told the court that Emir Karabasic, a Muslim from Kozarac whom he is accused of beating to death at Omarska, was "like a brother to me."

"We were always at each other's side," he added.

Tadic, a former cafe owner and karate coach, still faces a maximum life jail term if found guilty on 30 other counts of committing atrocities at Omarska and Keraterm.

The trial, which began in May, continues Monday. Summing up is scheduled for November 25, with a verdict in the spring.

The tribunal, set up by the U.N. Security Council in 1993, has indicted 75 suspected war criminals.

It has seven in its custody, but the rest, including former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, remain at liberty.

Correspondent Richard Blystone and Reuters contributed to this report.

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