THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A United Nations court on Wednesday convicted two former allies of late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic of aiding and abetting crimes committed by Serb paramilitaries in a Bosnian town in 1992.
It is the first time that Serbian officials have been convicted by a U.N. court of involvement in crimes in Bosnia.
However, the court said there was not sufficient evidence to convict them of similar crimes committed in other towns and villages in Bosnia and Croatia as the former Yugoslavia violently disintegrated in the early 1990s.
Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic were convicted of aiding and abetting the crimes of murder, deportation, forcible transfer and persecution in the town of Bosanski Samac, and each was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment. The judgment can be appealed.
Stanisic is a former head of Serbia’s State Security Service, and Simatovic was a senior intelligence operative with the service.
“The trial chamber is satisfied that the accused provided practical assistance which had a substantial effect on the commission of the crimes of murder, forcible displacement and persecution committed in Bosanski Samac and were aware that their acts assisted in their commission,” Presiding Judge Burton Hall said.
Hall said that Serb forces and paramilitaries took over the town in northern Bosnia in April 1992.
“Numerous crimes were committed against the non-Serb population ... including looting, rape and the destruction of religious buildings and cultural monuments,” Hall said. Local Bosnian Croats and Muslims were forced into detention centers where they were held in inhumane conditions, tortured and killed, he added.
Stanisic and Simatovic were originally acquitted in 2013 by judges who said prosecutors had failed to prove important elements of their links to the crimes. Appeals judges quashed the not-guilty verdicts in 2015 and ordered the retrial that took place at the U.N. International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals.
The verdicts Wednesday are the final U.N. prosecution in The Hague for crimes committed during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.
The court's chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, said in a statement that his office would study the judgment “and decide whether there are grounds to appeal.”
“As senior officials in the State Security Service of the Republic of Serbia, Stanisic and Simatovic contributed to the commission of crimes by paramilitary forces and other armed groups in furtherance of ethnic cleansing campaigns against non-Serbs,” Brammertz said.
Stanisic's lawyer, Wayne Jordash, said he would appeal.
“They found one incident in a municipality, and the evidence of that was weak,” he said. “And to me it looks like a cynical compromise that we have to find some way to convict him to justify putting a man on trial for 18 years.”
Prosecutors had alleged that both defendants were part of a “joint criminal enterprise” among top Serbian officials to force non-Serbs out of parts of Croatia and Bosnia.
Judges said they were convinced the enterprise existed, and that Stanisic and Simatovic knew about it, but said prosecutors had not proven beyond reasonable doubt that they actually participated.
Munira Subasic, leader of a Bosnian survivors' group called the Mothers of Srebrenica, welcomed the ruling that there was a Serbian plan to drive non-Serbs out of Bosnia.
“Serbia is responsible for the war in Bosnia ..., there is no way Serbia can find to absolve itself of that,” she said.
Earlier this month, appeals judges at the same court confirmed former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic's convictions for his role in atrocities throughout the Bosnian war, and upheld his life sentence.
Natasa Kandic, a prominent Serbian rights activist and the former head of the Humanitarian Law Fund group, described the verdict as “very important” because it is the last Hague trial and because “the accused and sentenced individuals belong to the most important institution in Serbia.”
Iva Vukusic, a historian at Utrecht University, said ahead of Wednesday's hearing that the prosecution of Stanisic and Simatovic, who were originally sent to The Hague to face trial in 2003, has taken too long.
“I think this case is really showing us that if international justice wants to be a viable solution, this is not the way to run it," she said in a telephone interview. "It’s been too long in the making.”
Even so, it offered an opportunity to pass the first judgment at an international court on Serbia's role in the wars.
Milosevic was charged in a broader indictment with fomenting crimes in the Balkan wars but he died in his cell in The Hague in 2006 before judges could deliver verdicts.
Associated Press writer Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed.
Mike Corder, The Associated Press