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Witness Recounts Srebrenica Autopsies
Tolimir trial hears of difficulties faced by pathologists examining victims’ remai
By Velma Saric - International Justice - ICTY
TRI Issue 669,
12 Nov 10
The trial of Zdravko Tolimir, the former assistant commander for military intell
igence and security in the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, this week heard how pathologi
sts struggled to carry out autopsies on the remains of victims of the Srebrenica
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 e
astern Bosnia.
According to the indictment, Tolimir helped, supervised and authorised the organ
ised detention, execution and burial of thousands of Muslim men and boys, follow
ing the realisation of a joint plan “whose basis had been the elimination of the S
rebrenica and Zepa enclaves”.
Prosecution witness Christopher Lawrence, a pathologist from Australia, was a fo
rmer 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, pro
secutor Abeer Hasan read a resume of his statement in the Popovic trial – which wa
s included as evidence in the Tolimir trial.
“Dr Lawrence led a team of people charged with the autopsy of… remains of people fro
m locations related to the fall of Srebrenica, such as the dam near Petkovci, se
ven 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 exec
ution of about 1,000 Bosniaks at the dam near the village of Petkovci, in the Zv
ornik 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 La
wrence and his team. Some bags included complete bodies, while others included o
nly parts thereof. Having reviewed the bodies, they photographed parts of bodies
which looked like injuries. All the damaged bones were given to pathologists fo
r 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 199
8 was to “examine exhumed…remains in order to determine the cause of death and the c
ircumstances 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 th
e 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 wh
o 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 complet
e 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 everythi
ng 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 som
e graves and particularly at sites such as the dam as well as Liplje, these bodi
es 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 i
t was a truly difficult task,” he continued. “We therefore ended up with a large num
ber of body parts which could not be connected one to the other. The only practi
cal way was DNA analysis... [in Bosnia] there was no technology that could achie
ve that.”
Lawrence s conclusion after reviewing the post-mortem remains of these 883 peopl
e was that the majority had been killed “by firearms” and that in most cases they ha
d not been combatants who died during fighting, but rather victims of executions
Having reviewed his reports, the witness said that there were “254 practically com
plete bodies, of which 203 had died by firearms, and in 50 others the cause of d
eath could not be precisely determined”.
He clarified that there were various criteria used to determine the cause of dea
th. “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 rele
vant?” Hasan asked.
“We tried to give the tribunal as much information as possible,” Lawrence answered. “T
hese were hardly reviewable bodies, in a well advanced state of decay because th
ey were buried, exhumed, than buried again. The bodies were practically broken a
nd 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-examinati
on how the pathologist “distinguished combatants from non-combatants”.
The witness answered that “it is fact that many bodies were found with ligatures o
n their hands and eyes” and that many victims, judging by the autopsy results, wer
e older or sick people, as well as women and children, so that “the only logical c
onclusion” 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 h
idden 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
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.