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UN tribunal hears appeal in longest-running war crimes case  

A pair of former Serbian security officials were first sent to The Hague two decades ago for crimes committed during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Two top former Serbian secret police officers brought an appeal of their war crimes convictions before a United Nations tribunal on Tuesday, 20 years after they were first arrested. 

Jovica Stanišić, former head of the Serbian State Security Service, and his top deputy Franko Simatović argue there was no evidence for their 2021 convictions and they played insignificant roles in the violent conflicts that took place after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

“A bit player” is how Stanišić's lawyer Wayne Jordash described his client, unexpectedly appearing via video link after unforeseen circumstances prevented Jordash from traveling to The Hague. Both defendants, who were first arrested in 2003, were present in the courtroom, only speaking when asked by the judge if the translation service was working. 

The defense teams argued their clients did not order militia groups to murder and deport mostly Croats and Bosniaks during the Bosnian War in the Balkans between 1991 and 1995.

The septuagenarians were acquitted by the now-disbanded International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 2013 after a four-year trial. But in 2015, the prosecution was granted a retrial before the U.N. Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, or MICT, which took over after the ICTY was wound down.

The retrial began again in 2017 and, after hearing from 80 witnesses, the court convicted the pair in June 2021, sentencing each man to 12 years in prison. 

According to the prosecution, under the direction of then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian State Security used paramilitary groups - with names like the Ninjas, the Scorpions and the Tigers - to eradicate non-Serbs, mostly Croats and Bosniaks, from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Stanišić and Simatović were commonly referred to as “Milosevic’s men on the ground” during the conflict. Milosevic died before his trial was complete and the case was widely seen as the last opportunity to hold the Serbian government accountable for war crimes. 

The public gallery of the courtroom was partially full Tuesday, and included a lively group of women, known as the Mothers of Srebrenica, whose husbands and sons were killed in the Srebrenica massacre. The 1995 killing of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys was found to be a genocide by the U.N.’s high court, the International Court of Justice, in 2007. 

The prosecution, which is also appealing for a longer sentence for the men, was dismissive of the claim that Stanišić and Simatović were minor players in the violence.

“Knowledge of the probability of the crimes occurring is enough,” Laurel Baig, the senior appeals prosecutor, told the five-judge panel. 

The appeals hearing in the case, the world's longest-running war crimes prosecution, will continue on Wednesday.

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