Nasser Oric, 37, is the first Muslim to be charged with war crimes committed in the Srebrenica area.
Although the name of Srebrenica is synonymous with the horrors of the Bosnian war because of the 1995 massacre of more than 7000 Muslim men by Serb troops, his trial does not cover that period.
In his opening statement on Wednesday, the prosecutor hardly touched on the genocide but concentrated on Oric’s role in 1992 and 1993 as the commander of the Muslim troops defending Srebrenica.
“This is the case of a young commander who became a war lord,” prosecutor Jan Wubben said in his opening statement.
The prosecution alleges that in the two-year period between the start of the war in 1992 and 1993, troops commanded by Oric destroyed 50 predominantly Serb villages around Srebrenica, causing thousands of Bosnian Serbs to flee.
He has also been charged with seven murders and several cases of cruel treatment committed by men under his command.
According to Wubben, Oric “failed to prevent and rein in the lawlessness of his soldiers”.
Dressed in a dark suit with his hair carefully slicked back, Oric listened stone-faced as Wubben named the men allegedly killed and brutalised by his soldiers.
However, in the defence opening statement Oric’s lawyer, John Jones, blasted the prosecution for not presenting a true picture of what was happening in Srebrenica at the time of the events.
“This is the case of a young commander who became a warlord”
“Srebrenica from the start of the war was an open-air concentration camp.
“Ten of thousands of refugees squeezed into the enclave, sleeping out in the cold in winters, being shelled and shot at by Serb forces like fish in a barrel, people dying every day,” he said.
Jones argued that the Serb troops had “a genocidal intent” from the start of the siege in 1992, and intended to effect a slow death on the people of Srebrenica by shelling, sniping, starvation and disease.
The defence is expected to argue that the raids on Serb villages by Oric’s troops were legitimate attacks on military targets and efforts to get food for the starving Muslims in Srebrenica.
Hero to Muslims
The tribunal has no standardised sentences for certain charges, making it impossible to tell what kind of sentence Oric might face.
The maximum punishment is a life sentence, which has so far been handed down once in the history of the tribunal and is not usually sought in cases involving only war-crimes charges.
“Srebrenica from the start of the war was an open-air concentration camp. Ten of thousands of refugees … being shelled and shot at by Serb forces… people dying every day”
Oric’s arrest and transfer to The Hague in April last year sparked controversy among Bosnian Muslim survivors of the 1995 massacre.
Some were outraged because they consider Oric a hero who fended off Serb troops, while others say he is a criminal and profiteer who made a fortune on the black market in Srebrenica.
Oric, a former bodyguard of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, left the enclave two months before it was overrun by Serb troops.
Some claim the massacre that followed was in revenge for the fierce resistance Oric’s men put up during the siege.