A war crimes tribunal in The Hague on Wednesday found two former Serbian officials guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes in the 1990s wars that ravaged the Balkans, the first time prosecutors have linked highs officials of the Belgrade war government to their involvement in conflicts in neighboring countries.
It was the last case to be heard by the international criminal tribunal established by the United Nations to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in those wars. The verdict capped dozens of trials that followed the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.
The case, which arose nearly three decades after the tribunal was established, was also a coda for the protracted legal struggle to hold architects and perpetrators to account for Europe’s worst bloodshed since the end of World War II. It was the last chance for 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 his deputy Franko Simatovic.
Court President Burton Hall announced the findings on Wednesday afternoon, saying the court ruled that the defendants were guilty of running a “joint criminal enterprise” to expel non-Serbs from parts of Croatia and of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In doing so, the court said, they created “an atmosphere of terror, arbitrary detention and forced labor.”
However, the findings were limited in scope, focusing on a Bosnian municipality, and dismissed a large majority of the charges against the prosecution, handing down sentences well below what prosecutors wanted. Both Mr. Stanisic and Mr. Simatovic were sentenced to 12 years in prison, including time served.
The verdict was subject to appeal, according to legal experts.
Prosecutors said Mr. Stanisic was the second most powerful man in Serbia from 1992 to 1995, when Slobodan 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 trials, 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.
More than 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 victories for international justice.
They were convicted of the most serious crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court and of those which by far claimed the highest number of victims, including the massacre of around 8,000 unarmed men and boys in Srebrenica, Bosnia. -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. No government official in Belgrade during the war has been convicted of 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 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 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.
It has been more than three years since the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague closed its doors, and its successor institution, the International Mechanism to Perform the Residual Functions of Criminal Tribunals, was the venue. official of the last trial.
Like many war crimes trials, the case against Mr. Stanisic and his deputy has been complex and lengthy, dating back to their indictment in 2003. Both men were acquitted in a trial in 2013, but judges say appeal, finding fundamental legal and factual issues. errors, overturned that verdict two years later and ordered a full new trial.
Wayne Jordash, defense attorney for Mr. Stanisic, called the prosecution’s case “weak” and said it was filled with savage exaggerations and motivated by a misunderstanding of war.
“It doesn’t make sense that Stanisic was both Milosevic’s right-hand man, as the prosecution says,” Jordash said, “whom he negotiates with international envoys, helps free soldiers from captured UN peace, while playing with filthy paramilitaries who looted and drank and caused trouble.
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 eviction from the majority of non-Serbs from parts of Croatia and Bosnia. .
Prosecutors presented documents recently obtained 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 led by the secret police led by Mr. Stanisic and Mr. Simatovic.
Prosecutors said these groups were responsible for doing the dirty work during the ethnic cleansing operations.