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Bosnia: First Genocide Verdict May Bolster Other Cases

  • Kathleen Moore

The international war crimes tribunal's guilty verdict for Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic yesterday was the Hague court's first conviction on a charge of genocide in the wars that broke up Yugoslavia. The case sets a precedent for the tribunal and is likely to have ramifications for Krstic's superiors.

Prague, 3 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "In July 1995, General Krstic, individually, you agreed to evil, and this is why today, this trial chamber convicts you and sentences you to 46 years in prison." That was the verdict pronounced by Presiding Judge Almiro Rodrigues yesterday as he sentenced former Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic for the 1995 massacre of up to 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men in the UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica -- the most notorious atrocity in Europe since World War II.

The verdict by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague was the court's first conviction on a charge of genocide relating to the Yugoslav wars.

ICTY spokesman Jim Landale told RFE/RL the judgment was a triumph for the 8-year-old tribunal:

"Well, this is a landmark judgement today at the tribunal. While we have had other people charged with genocide, and, in fact, two people acquitted of genocide, this is the first time any individual has been convicted of genocide. So, it is an extremely significant development for the tribunal."

The verdict is likely to have an impact beyond Krstic himself. Observers say it will have far-reaching ramifications for other suspects from the former Yugoslavia.

Those include former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his top general Ratko Mladic -- both of whom have been indicted for genocide -- and former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is awaiting trial in The Hague on lesser charges of crimes against humanity that are limited to his actions in Kosovo.

Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor for both the Rwanda and former Yugoslavia tribunals, welcomed the verdict as a victory for international justice:

"The Prosecutor Carla del Ponte has indicated that [further] charges [against Milosevic] will be coming, and I think that's very important, but the significance of [yesterday's ruling is] only going to be relevant if and when Milosevic will be indicted for crimes which are directly related to what happened in Bosnia."

Avril McDonald, a lawyer working at the Asser Institute in The Hague, was in the courtroom to hear the verdict. She notes that while Krstic's conviction doesn't mark the first international genocide verdict -- the Rwanda tribunal in Tanzania has already handed down nine such convictions -- the ruling is a harbinger of how future Yugoslav cases will be handled:

"Krstic was merely executing a plan which had been cooked up by [his superiors]. Krstic was the second-most senior military person in Bosnia at the most relevant time, under Mladic he was the most senior person. Responsibility for planning the genocide -- as the courts said, the ethnic cleansing became a genocide -- laid with highers-up. Who could that be? Probably Karadzic, Mladic, and Milosevic. So it's only going to help any case against them. Milosevic hasn't yet been charged for Bosnia but this is definitely going to make it easier."

McDonald says another significant aspect to the Krstic case is that it contributes to determining what constitutes genocide, especially as the judges said they had been influenced by earlier verdicts:

"What that appeals chamber found was that a single person could actually commit genocide. It's not necessary to be part of a group to commit genocide. It all turns on the intent the person has, and one person acting alone could conceivably commit genocide. So that was something new. The Rwandan tribunal has already found genocide has been committed there, and has analyzed it pretty exhaustively. [This] is the first attempt to analyze [genocide] within the Yugoslav context."

She said if the tribunal had been unable to get a conviction against Krstic for the Srebrenica massacre -- which had been painstakingly investigated -- it would not be able to get one in any other case. But she believes that despite the conviction, the sentence was very lenient:

"Given that I felt the case against Krstic was pretty strong, I was quietly optimistic that they would get a conviction. So I'm very satisfied with that result, with the conviction, though not with the sentence. I believe it doesn't really reflect the gravity of the crime."

This is a view shared by many, not least the women whose husbands and sons were killed. Critics point to the 45-year sentence given to General Tihomir Blaskic, a Bosnian Croat who was convicted on lesser charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The Croatian daily "Vecernji list" said Krstic's sentence makes a mockery of the victims of Srebrenica. It said: "For every person in Srebrenica he ordered to be killed, Krstic got two days of prison."

But Mary Greer, the Hague representative of the non-governmental Coalition for International Justice, says it's always tricky to compare sentences.

"You could tell with the 46 years they were trying to get barely over the 45 years, which was the sentence that General Blaskic got. Obviously they are saving life sentences -- life in the legal definition -- for other individuals that would likely be Mladic, Karadzic, Milosevic."

Balkan Stability Pact coordinator Bodo Hombach said today he expected Karadzic and Mladic to be arrested and transferred to The Hague tribunal this year.

Until that happens, Krstic's conviction will mark just the first step in bringing to justice those responsible for what happened in the fields around Srebrenica in July 1995.

(RFE/RL's Bruce Jacobs and Oleh Zwadiuk contributed to this report.)

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