THE HAGUE: Serbia on Friday hailed a UN tribunal’s acquittal of two top figures from the regime of the late Slobodan Milosevic of war crimes during the former Yugoslavia’s brutal 1990s conflict.
Milosevic’s former intelligence chief and his deputy were on Thursday cleared of running Bosnian death squads, after the tribunal said they could not have known the units would commit such crimes.
Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told AFP that the verdict would foster “conditions for reconciliation, peace and stability in the region”.
But Bosnian survivors of the conflict condemned the acquittals handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia’s (ICTY).
Dutch judge Alphons Orie told the Yugoslav war crimes court: “The chamber found that the prosecution had not proven beyond reasonable doubt that the accused planned or ordered the crimes charged in the indictment.”
He ordered their immediate release.
The release of intelligence chief Jovica Stanisic, 62, and co-accused Franko Simatovic, 63, is the latest in a string of acquittals by the ICTY. Prosecutors had sought life in prison.
Dressed in a dark suit, light blue shirt and striped red tie, Stanisic appeared nervous and fiddled with his headphones as the lengthy judgement was read out.
The defendants were impassive as they stood to hear the final verdict, but gave their lawyers emotional hugs once it became clear that they were free men.
Stanisic and key aide Simatovic each faced five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for their roles in the war that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991, which killed 100,000 people and left some 2.2 million others without a home.
Prosecutors accused the two of organising, financing and supplying Serb paramilitary groups, including an elite unit called the “Red Berets” and a feared paramilitary outfit, “Arkan’s Tigers”, run by Zeljko Raznatovic, between April 1991 and the end of 1995.
These units cut a swathe of destruction across Croatia and Bosnia as they attacked towns and murdered Croats, Muslims and other non-Serbs to force them from large areas in Croatia and Bosnia to create a Serb-run state, prosecutors said.
UN prosecutors alleged that Stanisic and Simatovic were part of a joint criminal enterprise, which also included late Serbian president Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
Judge Orie said that although Stanisic and Simatovic set up training camps and aided the units, particularly Serbia’s “Red Berets”, the majority of judges “could not conclude that… he (Stanisic) shared the intent to further the common criminal purpose of forcibly and permanently removing the majority of non-Serbs”.
The judge said the assistance was rather aimed at helping the Serbs “establish and maintain control in these areas”.
Stanisic’s lawyer Wayne Jordash welcomed the verdict.
“He is very happy, he is able to get on with his life, he waited a long time,” Jordash said of his client who has been in detention for 10 years.
Simatovic’s lawyer, Milhajlo Barkrac, said his client was looking forward to going home.
“We hope that they will be out tomorrow and going back to Belgrade to enjoy their retirement and enjoy fishing,” Barkrac told AFP.
But in Sarajevo, Munira Subasic, president of an association of families of Bosnian war victims, said the acquittal was “unacceptable”.
“This is unbelievable and unacceptable! This is a political verdict. I am shocked,” Subasic told AFP.
“Unfortunately, it encourages criminals to commit crimes in the future,” she added.
Subasic is head of the Mothers of Srebrenica association, a group of women whose male family members were killed in the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serbs.
Both Stanisic and Simatovic, who were arrested by Serb authorities in 2003, pleaded not guilty to the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including the murder, forcible transfer and deportation of Croats, Muslims and other non-Serbs from Bosnia and Croatia.
Their trial initially started in April 2008, but saw several postponements due to Stanisic’s ill health.
Stanisic was for seven years one of the most important officials of Milosevic, who died in the custody of the ICTY in 2006, while standing trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Karadzic is currently on trial there, accused of war crimes and genocide, most notably for having allegedly masterminded the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Europe’s worst bloodshed since the end of World War II.
Thursday’s acquittal followed that of Yugoslav army chief Momcilo Perisic in February and Kosovo’s former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, as well as Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac in November.