Wednesday, September 20, 2023
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In final ruling, UN tribunal extends sentences for Serbian security officials 

The appeals verdict from a special court established by the United Nations Security Council brings to an end the world's longest-running war crimes case.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on Wednesday lengthened the sentences for a pair of septuagenarians convicted of training paramilitary groups who murdered and tortured civilians during violent conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. 

Jovica Stanišić, former head of the Serbian State Security Service, and his top deputy Franko Simatović had an additional three years added to their jail terms after an appeals chamber found them guilty of participating in a joint criminal enterprise, rather than aiding and abetting attacks on non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

The decision marks the last ruling from the special court established by the United Nations Security Council in 1993 to prosecute grave crimes committed during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. 

“[Joint criminal enterprise] more appropriate affects the full scope of Stanišić and Simatović’s criminal conduct in connection with the crimes,” presiding Judge Graciela Gatti Santana told The Hague courtroom when issuing the verdict. 

Neither man reacted while the judgment was read out. Stanišić, wearing a dark suit and white shirt with no tie, was present in the courtroom but his co-defendant requested to attend the hearing virtually from the detention center. 

The ruling overturned an earlier decision that the men had aided and abetted crimes against humanity, a lower level of accountability than joint criminal enterprise, a legal doctrine that allows for individuals to be prosecuted for war crimes committed by a group as a whole. 

The conviction marks the first time Serbian state officials have been held to account for crimes during the conflict. Then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was charged by the tribunal but died in custody before his trial reached a verdict. 

“It shows there was substantial involvement of the state security of Serbia, and thus the Serbian state,” said Iva Vukusic, a historian at Utrecht University who has followed the trial since its beginning. Legally, she told Courthouse News, it’s an important change, but the decision is unlikely to change opinions in the region. 

On Tuesday, NATO sent more troops to northern Kosovo in an attempt to prevent further violence after ethnic Serbs forced their way into government buildings after elections. 

The final verdict comes 20 years after the men were first indicted. They were convicted of five counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes after a four-year trial in 2021, the second time they had been in the dock. In 2013, judges at the court found that while war crimes had been committed, Stanišić and Simatović couldn’t be personally linked to them. 

However, in 2015, an appeals court ruled that there were serious legal and factual errors in the decision and ordered a new trial, which began in 2017. 

“An expeditious trial is a human right,” Stanišić’s lawyer Wayne Jordash told Courthouse News after the ruling. He’s critical of the decision’s lack of consideration for how long his client has spent fighting the charges, only to have an additional sentence imposed with no further avenue for appeal. 

Accounting for the time they have already spent in pretrial detention, Stanišić and Simatović will now spend another 7.5 years and 5 years, respectively, in custody, though it’s likely they will be released early. 

Speaking to reporters following the hearing, chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz said although this was the last decision from the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, which took over the remaining cases from the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals when they were wound down, it wasn’t the end of his work. “For us, it was the last case but we know there are hundreds of cases which still need to be prosecuted domestically,” he said. 

In all, the tribunal brought 161 people to trial for murder, torture, forced displacement, and other atrocities crimes on the Southeastern Europe peninsula, ultimately convicting 93. Radovan Karadzic, a former politician who served as the president of the state of Republika Srpska during the war, lost his final appeal in 2019 and will remain in jail for the rest of his life. The former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, known as the “Butcher of Bosnia,” was also given a life sentence that was upheld on appeal in 2021

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Categories / Appeals, Criminal, International

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