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Bosnia: Zoran Gigic Goes On Trial At The Hague

  • Kitty McKinsey

The Hague, 21 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- When Bosnian Serb Zoran Zigic gave himself up to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague last week, he figured he was trading a miserable prison cell in Republika Srpska (the Serb half of Bosnia-Herzegovina) for a much more comfortable one in the Netherlands.

Zigic, 39, had spent the last five years serving a 15-year sentence in a military prison in Banja Luka, the main city in Republika Srpska, for a murder unrelated to his war crimes indictment. Once he agreed to face the war crimes accusations against him in The Hague, he was transferred here by NATO-led peace troops in Bosnia.

Toma Fila is the lawyer who represented Zigic yesterday (April 20) when he made his first appearance before the tribunal to enter not-guilty pleas to charges of crimes against humanity. Fila explained Zigic's surrender by saying to an RFE/RL correspondent that "prison here is much better than down there." And he added with a smile: "One eats much better."

But Zigic claims his circumstances haven't quite improved the way he expected.

At his arraignment yesterday, he complained to the court that his accommodations in The Hague are, as he put it, "inhumane" and "absolutely below standard," especially in view of the fact that he surrendered voluntarily.

He said he is held in a "room" with no toilet or running water, so he is not able to maintain his personal hygiene.

"I foresaw something different," he said. "In view of these conditions, perhaps I wouldn't have surrendered." Fila, speaking to the court, agreed that there was no justification for someone who surrendered to be held in worse conditions than suspects who were captured at gun point.

Zigic is the 26th accused man to come into the custody of the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The top-security detention prison in Scheveningen (a beach resort just a few minutes by car from the tribunal in The Hague), which two years ago held just one lone war crimes suspect, now is full.

The judge (Claude Jorda) who presided over Zigic's arraignment yesterday asked the detention authorities to look into the case, and agreed that Zigic should not suffer just because the main detention center is full.

Zigic is accused of 15 counts of war crimes allegedly committed in Omarska prison camp and 54 counts of war crimes allegedly committed in Keraterm prison camp. Both camps were run by the Bosnian Serbs in the Prijedor region of northwestern Bosnia in the summer of 1992, soon after the beginning of the war, after the Bosnian Serbs had "ethnically cleansed" the region.

The indictment alleges that a total of some 6,000 mostly Muslim civilians -- along with a smaller number of Croats -- were held in inhumane conditions in the two camps. The prosecution alleges that beatings, torture and murder were routine in both camps, where Muslim professionals, intellectuals and political or religious leaders were particular targets.

Zigic is not accused of being a camp commander or guard. Rather, he was one of a number of Bosnian Serbs who were allowed to enter the camps at will, as the indictment alleges, "to beat, murder and abuse prisoners."

Zigic is accused of a number of specific cases of beating mostly-Muslim prisoners -- each identified by name -- with truncheons, wooden clubs, metal rods, as well as his fists. In many cases, the prosecution alleges, the prisoners died as a result of the beatings.

In another charge, Zigic is accused of forcing prisoners to engage in "degrading, humiliating and/or painful acts." These included lying on broken glass, repeatedly jumping from a truck, and engaging in fellatio.

Another accusation against him is that he, along with a group of fellow Bosnian Serbs, sealed some 200 prisoners -- Muslims and a few Croats -- in a building at Keraterm. Zigic and the others allegedly then fired machine guns and heavy-caliber weapons into it, killing at least 140 and wounding 50.

It took more than 40 minutes yesterday for the court registrar to read out just the 54 charges relating to Keraterm, and for Zigic to enter his plea, after he had already heard the charges relating to Omarska. Wearing small sunglasses because of what he said was an eye problem that makes him over-sensitive to light, Zigic repeatedly told the court in a strong voice: "I am not guilty."

Whether or not that is true will be determined at his trial, which the prosecutor hopes to begin early in July.