For the first time, senior officials in Serbia’s 1990s war government were linked with involvement in atrocities in neighboring countries, as a war crimes tribunal in The Hague convicted two former Serbian officials on Wednesday for complicity in war crimes committed in the wars that ravaged the Balkans at that time.
The case was the latest 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 following the break-up of Yugoslavia, a conflict that sparked 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 bloodshed in Europe since the end of World War II. It was the last chance for UN prosecutors to link Serbian state officials to atrocities in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia.
Few Serbian officials have played such a crucial role during the conflicts as the accused Jovica Stanisic, the former head of state security of Serbia, and Franko Simatovic, his deputy.
Presiding Judge Burton Hall announced the findings on Wednesday afternoon, saying there was a “joint criminal enterprise” to expel non-Serbs from parts of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In doing so, the court said, they created “an atmosphere of terror, arbitrary detention and forced labor.”
“This common criminal objective,” said the judge, “was shared by some senior political, military and police leaders in Serbia”, although he did not name anyone. Court lawyers said this inevitably points to President Slobodan Milosevic as well.
However, the defendants were found guilty of aiding and 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 Serbian paramilitaries. Many Muslim and Croatian men were rounded up and executed, and others were transported out of the prison camps.
Tying the crimes in Belgrade was an important legal victory, but the findings were limited in scope and the court dismissed a large majority of the charges against the prosecution. The sentences were also well below the life sentences sought by prosecutors: Mr. Stanisic and Mr. Simatovic were both sentenced to 12 years in prison, including time served.
Despite this, Wayne Jordash, Mr Stanisic’s lawyer, said he would appeal the conviction and called the sentences “patently excessive”.
Kada Hotic, representative of a Bosnian association of war victims, told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network that she was satisfied with the verdict even though disappointed with what she said was a light sentence.
“Overall they are guilty,” she said. And Serbia, she said, was eventually 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 advisor and passionate strategist who was nicknamed “Ledeni” – Serbian for “ice man”.
Known for his pointy suits and dark sunglasses, Mr. Stanisic presented an image of calm. In contrast, Mr. Simatovic, the chief of special operations, was a more demonstrative man who preferred camouflage uniforms and, according to testimonies presented during the trials, he could be heard bragging about attacks on villages.
Prosecutors accused the two of organizing squads, authorizing the killing of prisoners and signing secret arms shipments. Mr. Stanisic and Mr. Simatovic were accused of creating and carrying out a series of covert operations using brutal paramilitary groups and acting on Mr. Milosevic’s orders.
Prosecutors said they were part of a criminal plot to force non-Serbs out of large parts of Croatia and Bosnia – a campaign that brought a new end to the dark lexicon of war: ” ethnic cleansing ”.
The tribunal, despite criticism of the length of the trials, set many important precedents in international criminal law and gave victims the opportunity to speak out about what they saw and experienced.
The tribunal expanded the body of international law established during the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II. And as other tribunals have followed, dealing with Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia, many believe the tribunal provided momentum for the founding of the permanent International Criminal Court.
In total, the court has conducted more than 80 trials, many with multiple defendants. He convicted 91 people and acquitted 18, while others died in detention in The Hague, at least three by suicide.
Over 100,000 people died in the 1991-1995 conflagrations, and around two million people were displaced from their homes.
The tribunal was founded in 1993 in response to the mass atrocities then unfolding in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. From the start, he faced criticism, skepticism and political pushbacks.
In Serbia, he was effectively labeled as anti-Serbian. Across the region, many of those convicted of war crimes are still considered heroes. And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the decisions did little to mend the deep divisions that still tore the seams of divided society.
But the court made a strong historical record and made it clear that Bosnian Muslims were by far the largest group of war victims.
Mr. Milosevic, considered the main architect of the Balkan wars, has faced a battery of accusations. But he died in a court 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, have been widely regarded as rare victories for international justice.
They were found guilty of the most serious crimes, including genocide, falling within the jurisdiction of the court, and of those which by far claimed the greatest number of victims, including the massacre of around 8,000 unidentified men and boys. armed in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Yet the rulers of Serbia itself – long accused of being the main instigators of the wars that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia – have largely escaped prosecution. Before Wednesday’s verdict, no government official in Belgrade during the war had served time for the atrocities committed in Bosnia or Croatia.
Some senior Serbian officials were convicted of crimes in the Kosovo independence conflict in 1999.
Stephen Rapp, former US Ambassador for War Crimes, said ending the tribunal’s work “without holding Serbian facilitators of crimes accountable would have left the tribunal’s task incomplete.”
The court’s closest decision was the conviction of Mr. Milosevic’s chief of staff, General Momcilo Perisic, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison for complicity in 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 its continued supply of arms, money, fuel and personnel to its allies in Bosnia and Croatia. But the judges argued that there was no evidence that this important support was intended to be used for crimes, rather than for what they saw as legitimate war efforts.
Since that verdict was overturned, prosecutors have struggled to find a way to make the crucial link that legally links many war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia to the Serbian State Security and by extension to its boss. , M. Milosevic.
Like many war crimes trials, the case against Mr. Stanisic and his deputy was complex and lengthy. Both men were acquitted at a trial in 2013, but the appeals judges, finding fundamental legal and factual errors, overturned that verdict two years later and ordered a full new trial.
The prosecution relied on dozens of witnesses, dozens of videos, and radio and telephone interceptions in an attempt to establish that the two men were part of an organized plot that orchestrated the forced and permanent expulsion from the city. majority of non-Serbs from parts of Croatia and Bosnia. .
Prosecutors presented newly obtained files from the Serbian secret police archives, which included details of the paramilitary recruits and the payments made to them. Payments to a group called the Red Berets were signed by Mr. Simatovic.
The secret files were provided by Belgrade, and prosecutors said they showed these groups – with names like Arkan’s Tigers, Scorpions, Gray Wolves and White Eagles – were not informal gangs. criminals or men who spontaneously took up arms, but well-trained, well-equipped and well-paid uniformed men tasked with doing the dirty work during the ethnic cleansing operations.