Tribunal Convicts Former Serbian Officials of Crimes in Balkan Wars

For the first time high-ranking officials from the 1990s wartime government in Serbia were linked to involvement in atrocities in neighb...


For the first time high-ranking officials from the 1990s wartime government in Serbia were linked to involvement in atrocities in neighboring countries, as a war-crimes tribunal in The Hague on Wednesday convicted two former Serbian officials of aiding and abetting war crimes committed in the wars that ravaged the Balkans at that time.

The case was the final one to be heard by the international criminal tribunal established by the United Nations to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the Balkan wars. The verdict capped dozens of trials that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, a conflict that unleashed waves of sectarian and ethnic fighting.

Coming nearly three decades after the tribunal was established, the case was also a coda for the protracted legal struggle to hold accountable the architects and perpetrators of the worst bloodletting in Europe since the end of World War II. It was the last chance for U.N. prosecutors to tie officials from the Serbian state to atrocities in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia.

Few Serbian officials played as critical a role during the conflicts as the defendants Jovica Stanisic, the former head of Serbia’s state security, and Franko Simatovic, his deputy.

The presiding judge, Burton Hall, announced the findings on Wednesday afternoon, saying there was a “joint criminal enterprise” to remove non-Serbs from areas of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In so doing, the court found, they created “an atmosphere of terror, arbitrary detentions and forced labor.”

“This common criminal purpose,” the judge said, “was shared by certain senior political, military, and police leadership in Serbia,” although he named no individuals. Lawyers at the court said this inevitably also pointed to President Slobodan Milosevic.

However, the defendants were found guilty of abetting crimes in only one Bosnian municipality, Bosanski Samac, where they trained the paramilitaries. The town on the Sava River was attacked in April 1992 by military units controlled by Belgrade and Serb paramilitaries. Many Muslim and Croat men were rounded up and executed and others were hauled off the prison camps.

Tying the crimes to Belgrade was a significant legal victory, but the findings were limited in scope, and the court rejected a vast majority of the prosecution’s charges. The sentences also fell far short of the life terms prosecutors wanted: Mr. Stanisic and Mr. Simatovic were both sentenced to 12 years in prison, including time served.

Despite that, Wayne Jordash, Mr. Stanisic’s lawyer, said he would appeal the conviction and called the sentences “manifestly excessive.”

Kada Hotic, a representative for a Bosnian war victims association, told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network that she was satisfied with the verdict even if disappointed by what she said was a light sentence.

“All in all, they are guilty,” she said. And Serbia, she said, had finally been shown to be involved in the crimes.

Prosecutors said Mr. Stanisic was the second most powerful man in Serbia from 1992 to 1995, when Mr. Milosevic was president. He was a trusted consigliere and keen strategist who was nicknamed “Ledeni” — Serbian for “ice man.”

Known for his sharp suits and dark sunglasses, Mr. Stanisic presented an image of calm. By contrast, Mr. Simatovic, the head of special operations, was a more effusive man who preferred camouflage uniforms and, according to evidence presented during the trials, could be heard bragging about attacks on villages.

Prosecutors accused the pair of organizing hit squads, permitting the killing of prisoners and signing off on covert weapons shipments. Mr. Stanisic and Mr. Simatovic were charged with creating and running a series of covert operations using brutal paramilitary groups and acting on the orders of Mr. Milosevic.

Prosecutors said that they were part of a criminal conspiracy to force non-Serbs out of large sections of Croatia and Bosnia — a campaign that brought a new term to the grim lexicon of warfare: “ethnic cleansing.”

The tribunal, despite criticism over the length of the trials, has set many important precedents in international criminal law and has provided victims a chance to give voice to what they witnessed and experienced.

The tribunal expanded on the body of international law established at the trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II. And as other courts followed it, dealing with Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia, many believe the tribunal provided the momentum for the founding of the permanent International Criminal Court.

In all, the tribunal has conducted more than 80 trials, many with multiple defendants. It has convicted 91 people and acquitted 18, while others have died while in custody in The Hague, at least three by suicide.

More than 100,000 people died during the conflagrations from 1991 to 1995, and about two million people were displaced from their homes.

The tribunal was founded in 1993 in response to the mass atrocities unfolding at the time in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From the outset, it has faced criticism, skepticism and political pushback.

In Serbia, it has effectively been branded as anti-Serb. Across the region, many of those who have been convicted of war crimes are still viewed as heroes. And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the rulings have done little to repair the deep divisions still tearing at the seams of the divided society.

But the tribunal did establish a robust historical record and made clear that Bosnian Muslims made up by far the wars’ largest group of victims.

Mr. Milosevic, considered the main architect of the Balkan wars, faced a battery of charges. But he died in a tribunal cell in 2006, shortly before the end of his trial.

The trials and convictions of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the supreme political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, were widely viewed as rare victories for international justice.

They were convicted of the gravest crimes, including genocide, that have come under the purview of the court, and of those that had by far the largest number of victims, including the massacre of about 8,000 unarmed men and boys in Srebrenica, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Still, the leaders of Serbia itself — long accused as the main instigators of the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia — have largely escaped prosecution. Before Wednesday’s verdict, no officials of the Belgrade government during the war had served time for the atrocities in Bosnia or Croatia.

Some senior Serbian officials have been convicted of crimes in the conflict over the independence of Kosovo in 1999.

Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. ambassador for war crimes issues, said that to end the work of the tribunal “without holding the Serbian enablers of the crimes accountable would have left the tribunal’s task incomplete.”

The closest the court came was in the conviction of Mr. Milosevic’s chief of staff, Gen. Momcilo Perisic, who was sentenced to 27 years for aiding and abetting war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia. But the verdict was overturned on appeal in 2013.

The judges did not dispute the evidence of Serbia’s wartime role, or of its continuous supply of weapons, money, fuel and personnel to its allies in Bosnia and Croatia. But the judges argued that there was no evidence that this extensive support was intended to be used for crimes, rather than for what they deemed to be legitimate war efforts.

Since that verdict was overturned, prosecutors have been struggling to find a way to establish the crucial link that legally tied many war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia to the Serbian State Security and by extension to its boss, Mr. Milosevic.

Like many war crimes trials, the case against Mr. Stanisic and his deputy has been complex and drawn out. The two men were acquitted at a trial in 2013, but appeals judges, finding fundamental legal and factual errors, overturned that verdict two years later and ordered a full retrial.

The prosecution relied on dozens of witnesses, scores of videos and radio and telephone intercepts to try to establish that the two men were part of an organized conspiracy that orchestrated the forcible and permanent removal of the majority of non-Serbs from parts of Croatia and Bosnia.

Prosecutors introduced newly obtained records from Serbian secret police archives, which included details about the paramilitary recruits and payments to them. Payments to a group called the Red Berets were signed by Mr. Simatovic.

The secret records were provided by Belgrade, and prosecutors said that they showed that these groups — with names like Arkan’s Tigers, the Scorpions, the Gray Wolves and the White Eagles — were not informal bands of criminals or men who spontaneously took up arms, but well-trained, well-equipped and well-paid men in uniforms, tasked with doing the dirty work during ethnic cleansing operations.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Tribunal Convicts Former Serbian Officials of Crimes in Balkan Wars
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