THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The conviction Wednesday of the former head of the Serbian State Security Service and his top deputy brings to an end to the world's longest-running war crimes case.
Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for the murder and illegal deportations of non-Serbs during violent conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s, following a retrial ordered after their 2013 acquittal.
“The murder and forcible displacements were out with discriminatory intent,” Judge Burton Hall told The Hague-based courtroom where the United Nations tribunal overseeing the case meets.
Prosecutors claimed the men used paramilitary groups to eradicate non-Serbs, mostly Croats and Bosniaks, from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The actions were allegedly carried out at the behest of then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who died of a heart attack in 2006 during his trial for war crimes and genocide.
The pair have maintained their innocence, claiming they had no control over militias with names like the Ninjas, the Scorpions and the Tigers, which killed and tortured civilians and forced them out of the country. They were charged in 2003 and arrested after they were involved in the assassination of Zoran Dindic, the Serbian prime minister.
Now in their 70s, the men were both present on Wednesday at The Hague-based U.N. Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, which took the remaining cases from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when it was wound down in 2017. Both wearing grey suits and blue surgical face masks, they didn't react as the verdict was read out.
They were charged with five counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, but Wednesday’s ruling did not find them guilty of all of the charges. They were held accountable for “at least” 16 deaths in the southeastern town of Bosanski Samac and for holding a larger group of Muslims and non-Serbs hostage. The judges acquitted them of similar crimes in other regions.
“This verdict is important because it links Belgrade to crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that was not the case in any previous case relating to Serbian officials,” Iva Vukusic, a historian at Utrecht University who has a book coming out on paramilitary groups operating in the region during the conflicts, said in an interview.
The retrial has garnered much criticism in the international justice community. An appeals court ordered the entire case to be reheard rather than ordering the original judges to reconsider their verdict because two of the judges had moved on from the tribunal, meaning the 80 witnesses had to travel to The Hague again to testify.
It’s not yet known where the men will serve their sentence. They will both be given credit for their time served.
Stanisic's lawyer, Wayne Jordash, told reporters after the verdict was handed down that they plan to appeal.
"They found one incident in a municipality and the evidence of that was weak. To me that looks like a cynical compromise that we have to find some way to convict him to justify why they put a man on trial for 18 years," Jordash said.
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 committed during a series of wars and ethnic conflicts that broke out in the Southeastern Europe peninsula during the 1990s. Its successor court upheld the war crimes and genocide conviction of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic last month.Follow @mollyquell
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.