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Bosnian Muslim Commander Goes On Trial for War Crimes - 2004-10-06

The trial of the only Muslim charged with crimes in the Bosnian area of Srebrenica has opened at the Yugoslav war crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Naser Oric, a former commander of Bosnian Muslims, is charged with six counts of war crimes against Serbs, including murder, cruel treatment, and plunder.

Looking somber in a smart, dark suit and a tie, 37-year-old Naser Oric listened closely as prosecutor Jan Wubben read out the charges and called him a warlord.

"Naser Oric was the reigning authority, the reigning lord. A warlord," said Jan Wubben. "What is a warlord? A warlord is a supreme military leader exercising civil power and accountable to no one."

The time was 1992 and 1993, the place Srebrenica and the surrounding areas. The war in Bosnia was raging, but the Srebrenica genocide against Muslims was still two to three years away. Srebrenica was a place where Muslim war refugees from other places fled, a place that was under attack from Serb forces and suffering even as a U.N. protected zone.

Naser Oric commanded Bosnian-Muslim forces there. Prosecutor Wubben called him an arrogant, reckless, and ignorant leader who used Srebrenica's increasing lawlessness to further his own war aims of getting rid of the Serbs.

The prosecution charges Mr. Oric with the crimes committed by the men under him, including seven murders and the cruel treatment of Serb prisoners. He is also charged with failing to prevent or punish his men from plundering and destroying Serb villages.

Prosecutors say commander Oric, in fact, used plunder as a wartime policy, taking the food from destroyed Serbian villages to feed his men and Muslim refugees.

They say he knew about the abuse of Serb prisoners and allowed it as long as enough men were kept alive for prisoner exchanges.

But defense lawyers say it's all about context, and that prosecutors are trying to paint an incomplete picture of what was really happening at the time: the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the name of a Greater Serbia. Using dramatic words and even more dramatic news footage from the war, defense lawyer John Jones told judges Mr. Oric committed no crime in trying to defend his people from a slow, certain death at the hands of the Serbs.

"You might start to wonder as the prosecution evidence unfolds whether you are asked to believe in an Alice in Wonderland world where black is white and white is black, where the attackers claim to be the attacked and the besiegers to be the besieged," he said. "In this case, will the prosecution lead you into a hall of mirrors, where you are asked to believe the very opposite of what all the other cases of this tribunal teach us about the Bosnian conflict."

Defense lawyers say Naser Oric was not a warlord but a brave warrior, David to the Serbs' Goliath. They say he had no control over a desperate and dying people and that it is not a war crime to steal food from the oppressors.

Many Bosnian Muslims view Mr. Oric as a national hero. His trial is expected to last about a year.