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Serbian secret police chiefs sentenced to 12 years over Bosnian war atrocities


Two Serbian secret police chiefs have been sentenced by The Hague war crimes tribunal to 12 years in prison for their role in atrocities during the Bosnian war.

Jovica Stanišić, the former head of the state security service (DB) and his deputy, Franko “Frenki” Simatović, who ran DB’s special forces, were ruled to have been “involved in providing some support” to the Serb paramilitaries who carried out ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian town of Bosanski Šamac.

The ruling marks the first time senior Serbian officials from Slobodan Milošević’s regime in the 1990s have been found guilty of war crimes committed in Bosnia.

It has been the longest-running international war crimes case in history. Stanišić and Simatović were first charged in 2003. On Wednesday, the two men were detained in The Hague, pending arrangements for transfer to another prison. Both have already served over six years in jail, which will be deducted from the sentence.

Announcing the verdict, the Bahamian judge Burton Hall said the prosecution had failed in most cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the two men orchestrated crimes committed by Serb paramilitaries across Croatia and Bosnia.

But Hall said there was proof of their involvement and legal responsibility for killings in Bosanski Šamac, through their provision of “practical assistance” in the form of training the paramilitaries, who later committed “crimes of murder, forcible displacement and persecution”. The two defendants were also aware that their own acts contributed to the crimes.

Šamac is a town that straddles the Sava River, with part of it in Croatia and part in Bosnia. It came under attack on 17 April 1992 from units of the Yugoslav National Army, controlled from Belgrade, and Serb paramilitary groups. After local Serbs took over the town, Muslims and Croats were rounded up. Many were executed on the spot, while others were sent to brutal prison camps.

“The trial chamber does not find the accused responsible for planning, ordering or abetting any other charged crime,” Hall said.

But the tribunal found that while both men were well aware of the campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out in Croatia and Bosnia, the prosecution failed to show that “the only reasonable inference from the evidence was that Stanišić and Simatović shared the intent to further the common criminal purpose”.

Despite the narrowly drawn nature of the verdict, Kada Hotić, whose son, husband and two brothers were killed in the genocide at Srebrenica, expressed partial satisfaction.

“They were sentenced to 12 years each. The charges are terrible, but the court did not take everything into account. And all in all, they are guilty. And Serbia is [shown to be] involved in these crimes,” Hotić told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in The Hague.

The prosecution also gave a muted welcome to the verdict.

“The convictions of Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović today are steps forward in ensuring accountability for those most responsible for the atrocity crimes committed during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia,” said Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor at the International Residual Mechanism for the Criminal Tribunals, the body charged with overseeing the last war crimes cases from the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

“As senior officials in the state security service of the Republic of Serbia, Stanišić and Simatović contributed to the commission of crimes by paramilitary forces and other armed groups in furtherance of ethnic cleansing campaigns against non-Serbs.”

Brammertz said his office was considering whether to appeal against the verdict.

Wayne Jordash, a lawyer representing Stanišić, said the verdict was a face-saving compromise aimed at justifying the lengthy legal process.

“Basically they were found guilty with very weak evidence, and they convicted them to justify that they were being tried twice,” Jordash said.

Nataša Kandić, a Serbian human rights activists and the founder of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, said it showed it was not Serbian individuals but institutions that were complicit, arguing “no one can now clear Serbia and say that it did not participate in these crimes”.

Stanišić, 70, and Simatović, 71, were acquitted of all charges in an initial trial that concluded in 2013, but an appeals chamber ordered a retrial in 2015, arguing the judges had taken too narrow a view on defining complicity, requiring evidence of “specific direction” to the paramilitary groups to commit crimes, rather than a broader involvement in a “joint criminal enterprise”.

The convoluted legal process has underlined the difficulties in attributing criminal responsibility to state sponsors of criminal paramilitary groups operating in other countries.

Daniel Serwer, a former US envoy in Bosnia who helped negotiated the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in 1995, described the verdict as “a good thing on balance”.

“It holds two high Serbian government officials responsible for aiding and abetting commission of murder, war crimes, and crimes against humanity,” Serwer said. “I would have preferred a geographically less limited decision, as I am convinced their guilt extends well beyond Bosanski Šamac. But still the decision leaves no doubt about the involvement of Serbia in wartime atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Stanišić emerged from the evidence as a particularly wily operator. While overseeing Milošević’s campaign to carve out a greater Serbia from the wreckage of Yugoslavia, he was also providing information to the CIA, identifying the location of mass graves for example. The CIA submitted a classified document in the first trial, reported to list the ways in which he had provided assistance, particularly in finally ending the Bosnian war with the Dayton agreement.

Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnian political scientist, argued the tribunal “was necessary for achieving some degree of justice for victims, but it is an insufficient platform for establishing a full historical record of the crimes of Milošević’s regime and its assorted proxies.

“That is the task of scholars and activists and remains very much a work in progress.”

The second trial, the last major war crimes case to be heard at The Hague tribunal, began in 2017. The defendants are expected to appeal the verdict.



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