Key Srebrenica Witness Admits Lying
Momir Nikolic's fictional account of massacre raises questions about plea-bargain system.
By Chris Stephen in The Hague (TU 327, 29 September 2003)
The Hague prosecution's star witness in the Srebrenica case has admitted in court that he lied in testimony when he said he ordered one of the biggest single massacres of Bosnian Muslims.
Former Bosnian Serb army captain Momir Nikolic's admission in a courtroom appearance this week will undermine confidence in other details he has supplied about the Srebrenica killings in July 1995, and raises questions about how plea-bargain agreements are negotiated with those accused of war crimes.
Nikolic, an army intelligence officer who was present during the massacres and was indicted by The Hague for playing a major role in them, made history as the first Serb officer to give evidence against his colleagues.
But now doubts about his reliability as a witness have arisen after he admitted that a statement he gave to prosecutors earlier this year contained a lie.
In a courtroom appearance on September 29, he admitted he did not give the orders to gun down more than 1,000 Bosnian Muslims inside a warehouse at Kravica. He was not even present when it happened, on July 13, 1995. Kravica was one of the single biggest massacres carried out by Serb forces around Srebrenica.
In recent days, Nikolic has been in court as part of a plea-bargain deal with prosecutors, giving evidence against Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic, Bosnian Serb officers indicted for war crimes alongside him. In May, prosecutors agreed to drop a genocide charge against him and seek a lesser sentence of 15 to 20 years, and in return he changed his not guilty plea to an admission that he committed crimes against humanity.
But now, Nikolic has renounced his original statement that he had personally supervised the Kravica killings.
"You needed to give him [the prosecutor] something he did not have, right?" said Michael Karnavas, defending. "You wanted to limit your time of imprisonment to 20 years, that was part of the arrangement, yes? Quid pro quo?"
Nikolic admitted he had lied, "I did not tell the truth when I said that. Afterwards I said I had made a mistake, I had lied.
"I apologise. All I can do is confess and say that discussing the crime is a very difficult situation to be in."
"I think we should call it for what it is, a bald faced lie," said Karnavas.
"I'm still a little bit confused," the American lawyer continued. "How is it that you thought by admitting to one of the most horrendous executions in this area, that this would help you in getting the kind of sentence that you are hoping and praying for?"
"I wanted the agreement to succeed," responded Nikolic.
His original statement to prosecutors included testimony that while at Kravica, he had observed the involvement of another war crimes suspect, former army officer Ljubomir Borovcanin, in the killing.
He has now told the court that although he was not present, he was certain that Borovcanin had been there.
"You implicated Borovcanin in your falsehood in order to make your story more convincing, so that the prosecutor would buy it?" said Karnavas. "You needed to give him [the prosecutor] some more facts to sweeten the deal - that's why you provided false information about Kravica?"
He went on to ask Nikolic whether he had lied so as to make his story impressive enough for prosecutors to offer him a plea-bargain deal. "Your lawyers had a laundry list of factors that the prosecutor was expected to agree to," said Karnavas.
"The prosecution did not exert any influence on me," responded Nikolic. "What I did is my own mistake."
Karnavas continued to press him, saying, "Did you think that by falsely admitting to having ordered this execution that you were solving a question-mark in the prosecutor's case as to who had ordered that murder?"
Nikolic's admission could have serious implications for the prosecution strategy of using plea bargains.
In recent weeks, prosecutors have persuaded several former Bosnian Serb commanders to give evidence against their former comrades by offering to cut their sentences.
Nikolic's plea-bargain negotiations took six months, starting last November. It now seems he was so desperate to get a deal with prosecutors that he was willing to lie to them.
The prosecutors are in a difficult position. They will only offer plea-bargain arrangements to people who can give high-quality evidence. But this case suggests that some defendants could be tempted to embroider the facts to make their crimes more "worthy" of a deal.
Chris Stephen is IWPR's tribunal project manager.