Lukic Accused of Trying to Buy Alibi

Witness tells Hague court he refused defendant’s offer of a bribe for fake testimony in Visegrad trial.

By Rachel Irwin in The Hague (TU No 577, 14-Nov-08)

In a startling finale to the prosecution’s case against war crimes suspect Milan Lukic this week, a Bosniak witness said the accused offered him 100,000 euro in return for a false alibi.

Hamdija Vilic, a Bosniak who testified at the Hague tribunal in open court, said he received a phone call around June 5 this year from two people referred to as “MLD-10 and her husband”, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

“[MLD-10 and her husband] said I should give a statement on [Lukic’s] behalf, and he would provide me with everything I would need in life, including assets,” said Vilic.

Vilic is a former resident of the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad, and his wife and three children – aged 11, 8, and 7 – died in a burning house in the Bikavac neighbourhood on June 27, 1992.

According to the indictment, Milan Lukic and his cousin Sredoje – both Bosnian Serbs – forced approximately 70 Bosniaks into the Bikavac house before they barricaded the exits and set it on fire. The sole survivor of that fire, Zehra Turjacanin, testified at the tribunal in September.

Vilic said he was hiding in a different area and did not witness the fire that killed his family.

The Lukic cousins are also charged with the murder of another 70 Bosniak women, children and elderly men, who perished in a burning house on Pionirska Street on June 14, 1992.

Milan Lukic, the former leader of a Serb paramilitary group known as the White Eagles, is charged with 21 counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war – including murder, extermination and severe physical and psychological abuses. Sredoje Lukic is charged on 13 counts.

When prosecutor Dermot Groome enquired as to why Vilic would consider speaking to Lukic, given the circumstances, he responded, “I know [Lukic] burnt my family alive and destroyed my life,” he said. “I wanted to know what he wanted from me. That was my only reason.”

Vilic spent much of his testimony sitting tensely, with one hand pressing down on the arm of his chair. His grey hair and weathered face made him appear older than his 51 years.

He received two phone calls from Milan Lukic, he said, and during the first one, on June 8, Lukic told him that “some of his people” would arrive in Bosnia to negotiate.

A meeting was subsequently scheduled for June 22 at the home of MLD-10 and her husband, in the central Bosnian town of Zavidovici, continued the witness.

The witness said that during the second phone conversation with Lukic on June 21, the defendant asked if he had received the information about the meeting, to which Vilic responded that he had.

“Milan told me I would be finding out the truth about my wife, children, brother and neighbours [after I testified],” he added.

Vilic told the court that he arrived in Zavidovici around 9 am on the morning of June 22, and that MLD-10 handed him a piece of paper handwritten in Cyrillic Serbian – the first side was addressed to him, the other to MLD-10’s sister.

“Did MLD-10 tell you what the paper was?” asked Groome.

“Yes,” responded Vilic. “She told me [that] here Milan wrote down what I should answer on behalf of his defence.”

The statement, explained Vilic, instructed him to say that as a commander in the Bosnian government army, he had intercepted Serb military vehicles and killed three Serb officers near the town of Kopito on June 13, 1992.

Vilic said he was also instructed to say that at this time, he had encircled Milan Lukic and his soldiers and held them for three days and three nights, making it impossible for Lukic to have been in Visegrad on those days when he is accused of starting the Pionirska house fire.

The witness said that two men he referred to as Lukic’s legal representatives arrived at MLD-10’s house later that afternoon.

One of them, he continued, was from Belgrade, while the other was American and spoke Serbian with a thick accent.

“They said, ‘Milan is going to give you everything you will need in your life’,” said Vilic.

The men proceeded to offer him 100,000 euro if he confirmed the prepared statement during his testimony in The Hague, said the witness.

Vilic said he refused the alleged offer, and told the court that he had never fought in Kopito, and that he had only been a soldier in the army, not a commander.

The lawyer from Belgrade, said Vilic, told the American to relay the conversation to Milan when he returned to The Hague.

“What was going through your mind in relation to the entire transaction?” Judge Patrick Robinson asked the witness.

“Had I accepted, it would have been selling out my wife, children, brothers, neighbours, everyone else, in exchange for money,” responded Vilic.

“I probably wouldn’t have been able to live [with myself]. They are ready to pay money to be acquitted, though they have done what they are accused of.”

Vilic said he decided to tell tribunal prosecutors about the incident when he met someone in a bar who had connections with The Hague. Vilic said he gave the person his phone number, and was contacted by prosecutors a few days later.

During his cross-examination, Jason Alarid, Milan Lukic’s lawyer, sought to undermine Vilic’s credibility.

He brought up the fact that Vilic had served a five-year prison sentence in 1996 for killing another Bosniak, apparently in self-defence.

“Isn’t it true that you are the one who demanded 100,000 euro from Milan to tell the truth?” asked Alarid.

“No, never,” responded Vilic.

Following the cross-examination, Alarid submitted an argument under the tribunal’s 98bis rule. This stipulates that at the end of the prosecution’s case, a defendant can ask the judges to acquit him of charges for which insufficient evidence has been presented.

In his submission, Alarid requested that judges dismiss 13 counts from the indictment, including those related to the killing of seven men at the Varda Furniture Factory, house burnings in Bikavac and Pionirska Street, and the killing of a Bosniak woman Hajira Koric.

Alarid did not challenge the first count of the indictment, which includes the general persecution, murder and abuse of non-Serb civilians in Visegrad. He also left alone those charges covering the beatings at Uzamnica Detention Camp.

In addition, he questioned whether it was appropriate for his client to be tried in a war crimes tribunal since, as an alleged paramilitary, Milan had no ties to the “architects” of the conflict and only commanded “a small group of friends”.

“[The prosecution] wants to separate Milan from the broader power spectrum in the region… with no apparent ties to leadership,” continued Alarid.

The judges are expected to rule on the submission shortly, and the defence of Sredoje Lukic will begin next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.