Attorneys Spar as Retrial Ends for Ex-Serbian Security Officials

The case is widely seen as the last opportunity to hold the Serbian government accountable for war crimes, as the country’s former president died before his trial was complete.

A man stands by a monument dedicated to people tortured and killed during the Bosnian War by Serbian forces after they occupied the neighborhood of Grbavica in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Prosecution and defense lawyers laid out their final arguments Wednesday in the retrial of two top former Serbian secret police officers charged with murdering and deporting non-Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s.

Jovica Stanisic, former head of the Serbian State Security Service, and his top deputy, Franko Simatovic, are charged with four counts of crimes against humanity and one count of war crimes for their involvement in several violent conflicts that took place after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Lawyers for the men, who are now both 71,  told a United Nations court their clients did not organize or command militia groups that murdered and forcibly deported mostly Croats and Bosniaks during the Bosnian War in the Balkans between 1991 and 1995. Both men were acquitted by the now-disbanded International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 2013 but the prosecution was granted a retrial before the U.N. Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, or MICT, in 2015. 

“He didn’t attend meetings where logistical or military decisions were made,” Simatovic’s lawyer Vladimir Petrovic told The Hague-based court. As the lower ranking of the two, Simatovic’s defense focused on his lack of authority and described him as someone who was just following orders.

Both men, who were first arrested in 2003, were granted provisional release and were not present at the court. The legal teams and judges were in the courtroom, which was limited to the public because of Covid-19 restrictions. 

“What is unbecoming, your honors, our call to consider the evidence of obvious frailty and lies or the prosecution’s reliance on it?” Wayne Jordash, lead counsel for Stanisic, asked the three-judge panel.

Jordash argued his client had never equipped or supported paramilitary groups, with names like the Ninjas, the Scorpions and the Tigers. In the first trial, judges found that while the militias did commit war crimes, Stanisic and Simatovic couldn’t be directly linked to their actions. 

At the start of the week, the prosecution began its closing remarks, connecting the men to a joint criminal enterprise including then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic and others. The prosecution alleges that the two were Milosevic’s “men on the ground,” equipping and training paramilitary groups. 

“The common criminal plan was uniting Bosnia and Croatia territories into an ethnically Serbian state,” Douglas Stringer, the prosecution’s senior lawyer, told the court on Wednesday when both sides had an opportunity for rebuttal.

The tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, created by a 1993 U.N. resolution, brought 161 people to trial for murder, torture, forced displacement, and other atrocities crimes during a series of wars and ethnic conflicts that broke out in the Southeastern Europe peninsula during the 1990s. 

Before it was shut down in 2017, and its cases handed off to the MICT, judges at the tribunal convicted 90 people for genocide, murder, attacks on civilians, and other crimes. Both Karadzic and Mladic were sentenced to life in prison for genocide and other crimes for their roles in the conflict and Milosevic was charged but died of a heart attack before a verdict could be reached in the case.

If convicted, Stanisic and Simatovic could be given life sentences. A verdict in the case is expected in May. 

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