Medico-Legal Investigations of War Crimes

By David Rohde 

As a dozen photographers and reporters anxiously awaited the team’s first move, John Gerns, a forensic investigator, calmly hoisted a six-foot long, T-shaped iron rod from a pickup truck. Gerns and a team of investigators from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had finally arrived in a pastoral meadow in Lazete, Bosnia.

Hurem Suljic, a fifty-two-year-old Bosnian Muslim, had told investigators he had narrowly survived the mass execution of hundreds of Bosnian Muslims here by Bosnian Serb soldiers in July 1995. Nine months after the executions allegedly occurred, a kaleidoscope of wildflowers had sprouted above what Suljic said was a mass grave.

Standing at the edge of the meadow, Gerns used his body weight to slowly drive the prod into the ground. Pausing a moment to catch his breath, he gently pulled the stake from the earth and did something that baffled many of the journalists. Gerns sniffed the tip of it. The forensic investigator, the journalists were later told, was checking the soil for the smell of decomposing human flesh.

The Lazete exhumation was the final stage of a medico-legal investigation, an inquiry into a death that can be carried out in peacetime or war. In most criminal justice systems, when an individual succumbs to a violent or suspicious or unattended death, a medico-legal investigation is conducted to probe the circumstances surrounding their demise.

The investigation begins with the accumulation of ante- and postmortem evidence. When it is completed, a legal document is produced, mainly a death certificate that identifies the deceased and, as far as possible, the cause and manner of death.

Medico-legal investigations can also be inquiries into the possible use of torture or chemical weapons. Experts may examine former prisoners or detainees for signs of torture or refugees who have survived chemical weapons attacks.

In Lazete, the deceptively placid meadow presented war crimes investigators with an opportunity to triangulate different types of evidence—in this case, to prove whether or not the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army was responsible for a mass execution.

Hurem Suljic, who survived the massacre by hiding under the body of a fellow prisoner, had given investigators a sworn statement that he had witnessed Bosnian Serb Army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic overseeing the Lazete executions. Investigators found landmarks near the meadow, such as a school and railroad tracks, that matched Suljic’s statement. But investigators needed to find bodies and determine the victims’ cause of death to corroborate his account.

William Haglund, an American forensic anthropologist, led the team that day. The investigators, as with most peacetime medical inquiries, included experts from various disciplines such as pathology, radiology, anthropology, archaeology, and odontology.

As the exhumation began, journalists quickly grew tired of its slow, painstaking pace. Investigators first mapped out the meadow and photographed it before digging. Whenever a bullet casing, bone, or body was found it was carefully labeled, photographed, and placed in a plastic bag. Just as in a civilian murder investigation, evidence, no matter how overwhelming, can be thrown out or discredited in court if collected improperly.

Investigators, if they are conducting a proper inquiry, should follow the “Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions,” also known as the “Minnesota Protocol,” adopted by the UN in 1992. The manual details how every step of a medico-legal investigation, from gathering antemortem evidence, such as medical records and X-rays, to conducting autopsies, should be carried out.

The findings in Lazete and other mass graves in the hills surrounding Srbrenica proved damning. One hundred and sixty-four bodies were exhumed from the graves. Many of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs and wore blindfolds. Religious artifacts and other objects found on their bodies indicated they were Bosnian Muslims. By late 1997, one of the bodies had been identified based on DNA analysis as one of the men who had fled Srbrenica in the summer of 1995.

Suljic’s account had been corroborated, but the most chilling piece of evidence was a snapshot found in the shirt pocket of one of the victims. A smiling woman, apparently the victim’s wife or girlfriend, stared out from the tattered photo. A bullet had torn through the center of it.

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