A top UN war crimes prosecutor has now conceded that prosecution staff in The Hague destroyed hundreds of pieces of evidence recovered at Srebrenica, scene of one of Europe’s biggest massacres since the Nazis.

Media in Bosnia reported today that Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor for the Hague-based international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) told a survivor’s group that around 1000 items recovered in mass graves at Srebrenica had been destroyed because they posed a health hazard. UN sources who have worked extensively with the tribunal told me tribunal staff dumped the material for a more mundane reason—it smelled bad.

Brammertz’s reported comments came two days after I wrote that more than 3000 pieces of evidence and artifacts collected over the years by war crimes investigators may have been destroyed at the tribunal. 

A tribunal spokesperson had earlier declined to comment on the allegations, saying such information was “confidential.”

Forensic experts I spoke with today questioned the tribunal’s rationale for destroying the material.

“This kind of stuff smells terribly. It’s part of the business,” said one expert on evidence preservation. “If that smell bothers you, you shouldn’t be in this business.”

Several experts told me technology is widely available to “freeze-dry” documents such as identity cards and photographs that might be in an advanced state of decay. This process can preserve and even restore documents and remove strong smells.

“The goal is always to preserve the maximum amount of evidence,” says Michael “Sonny” Trimble, a forensic archeologist with the US Army Corps of Engineers. “To dispose of something simply because it smells violates all the basic principles of evidence preservation.”

Trimble has worked extensively on excavating mass grave sites, including victims of Saddam Hussein’s notorious Anfal Campaign. Trimble says his team used the “freeze-dry” technique to save a number of identity cards found on victims.

“The technology is there to preserve material pulled from mass graves,” Trimble says. “And most of it is not particularly expensive.”

However, he added that this kind of work is labor-intensive, with each document sometimes requiring hours of work by a highly-trained preservationist

Sources tell me the ICTY relied on these techniques in its early years to save some documents from decay. Why this wasn’t done in the case of the Srebrenica material is one of many questions the tribunal will face in the coming days.

CIR’s “The Investigators” series followed Michael Montgomery on his reporting trip to the Balkans this spring, where he was investigating the killing of Serbs who disappeared after the end of the war in Kosovo. Michael’s resulting radio documentary aired on the BBC. Go behind the story with Michael in CIR’s web-video journal “Searching for Kosovo’s Missing.”

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Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others.

Previously, Montgomery was a senior reporter at American Public Media, a special correspondent for the BBC and an associate producer with CBS News. He began his career in eastern Europe, covering the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for the Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and creation of a new war crimes court based in The Hague. Montgomery’s honors include Murrow, Peabody, IRE, duPont, Third Coast and Overseas Press Club awards. He is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.