A United Nations war crimes tribunal today handed out life terms in jail to two former top Bosnian Serb military officers after convicting them of genocide for their role in the 1995 massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN safe haven of Srebrenica, the most notorious episode of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.
In the largest ever case before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), judges also sentenced five other former military and police officers to lengthy terms in prison for their role in the killings at Srebrenica and another safe haven of Žepa – events the court said were unprecedented in scale and brutality.
The ICTY found that at least 5,336 people are confirmed to have been killed as a result of the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, but that other evidence indicates the death toll could be as high as 7,826. Srebrenica and Žepa had been declared safe havens for civilians by the UN two years before the massacres, but they were both overrun by Bosnian Serb forces.
The attacks were carried out following the issuing of a “supreme command directive” in March 1995 by the then Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadžic in which he set out the criminal plan aimed at forcing the Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica and Žepa to leave the enclaves. Mr. Karadžic is himself on trial for his role in the Balkan wars.
The tribunal stated that the Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb forces (known as the VRS) was tasked with creating “an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Žepa,” which are both located in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The scale and nature of the murder operation, with the staggering number of killings, the systematic and organised manner in which it was carried out, the targeting and relentless pursuit of the victims, and the plain intention, apparent from the evidence, to eliminate every Bosnian Muslim male who was captured or surrendered proves beyond reasonable doubt that this was genocide,” the trial chamber found.
“In the context of the war in the former Yugoslavia, and in the context of human history, these events are arrestive in their scale and brutality.”
Vujadin Popovic, the chief of security of the Drina Corps, and Ljubiša Beara, the head of security in the VRS main staff, were each found guilty of genocide, extermination, murder and persecution and sentenced to life in prison.
The judges said Mr. Popovic was one of the major participants in the attacks on the safe havens. He was found to have been present at a number of sites where captured Bosnian Muslims were detained or executed between 13 July and 23 July.
“Mr. Popovic knew that the intent was not just to kill those who had fallen into the hands of the Bosnian Serb Forces, but to kill as many as possible with the aim of destroying the group. Mr. Popovic’s ensuing robust participation in all aspects of the plan demonstrates that he not only knew of this intent to destroy, he also shared it.”
Mr. Beara was the “driving force behind the murder enterprise,” the judges said. He “had the clearest overall picture of the massive scale and scope of the killing operation. From his presence in Bratunac on the night of 13 July, to his personal visits to the various detention and execution sites and the significant logistical challenges he faced throughout, Mr. Beara had a very personal view of the staggering number of victims destined for execution.”
Drago Nikolic, the chief of security in the Zvornik Brigade, was found guilty of aiding and abetting genocide, extermination, murder and persecution and sentenced to 35 years in jail.
Ljubomir Borovcanin, the deputy commander of the Special Police Brigade of the police forces, was convicted of aiding and abetting extermination, murder, persecution and forcible transfer, murder as a crime against humanity and as a violation of the laws of customs of war under. He will serve a 17-year jail term.
Radivoje Miletic, the chief of the administration for operations and training at the VRS main staff, was found guilty of murder, persecution and inhumane acts and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
Milan Gvero, the assistant commander for moral, legal and religious affairs of the VRS main staff, was convicted of persecution and inhumane acts and acquitted of the two counts of murder and that of deportation. He was sentenced to five years in jail.
Vinko Pandurevic, commander of the Zvornik Brigade, was found guilty of aiding and abetting murder, persecution and inhumane acts. He was acquitted of charges of genocide, extermination and deportation and will serve 13 years in prison.
The trial was the largest conducted to date at the ICTY, which is based in The Hague. Proceedings began in August 2006 and concluded in September last year. The trial took a total of 425 days during which the ICTY heard or otherwise admitted evidence from 315 witnesses.
The tribunal has indicted 21 people for crimes committed in Srebrenica. They include Radislav Krstic, the first individual to be convicted by the ICTY of aiding and abetting genocide in Srebrenica. The appeals chamber sentenced him to 35 years’ imprisonment. The trials of Mr. Karadžic, Zdravko Tolimir, Jovica Stanišic and Franko Simatovic are ongoing. Ratko Mladic, the war-time VRS leader also charged with genocide in Srebrenica, remains at large.
Since its establishment, the ICTY has indicted more than 160 persons for serious violations of humanitarian law committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 2001. Proceedings against 123 have finished and proceedings are open for another 40 accused.