The conviction of two Serbian spy chiefs closes the great trials for the Balkan wars | International
The great trials for the Balkan wars have come to an end 30 years after the United Nations ordered the creation, in 1993, of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The court formally closed its doors in 2017, but there were still appeals and some minor cases, and this Thursday the appeal of the case against Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, heads of Serbian espionage with the late former president of the country Slobodan Milosevic, has marked a milestone. It is the first time that the judges have concluded that Serb officials were directly part of a criminal enterprise linked to the political and military power of Belgrade and that they acted at their orders in the regions that sought independence in the process of decomposition of Yugoslavia. In other cases tried by the court, the judges concluded that the defendants were linked to Bosnian Serb or Croatian Serb leaders.
The two defendants have been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. The ruling not only imposes a sentence of 15 years in prison for each, it also confirms that the objective of their crimes was the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs.
What happened with Stanisic and Simatovic shows the difficulties of proving, without a shadow of a doubt, Serbia's political and military collusion in the crimes perpetrated in Bosnia and Croatia. Both were acquitted in the first instance in 2013 because it was considered that they had not planned and ordered the murders, deportation, beatings, illegal detentions, sexual abuse and forced labor committed between 1991 and 1995 by the armed units in those regions that, however, they they organized and ran themselves with Serbian state funds. In 2015, appellate judges ordered a retrial on the grounds that the concept of complicity in a crime had been misunderstood. In 2021, a sentence of 12 years in prison was handed down for each. The current appeal increases the sentence to 15 years and closes the legal course of this case.
According to Nevenka Tromp Vrkic, of Croatian origin and investigator of the Prosecutor's team during the trial against Milosevic ―found dead in his cell in The Hague during the trial, in 2006―, not even the sentences for the Srebrenica genocide, which led to the life imprisonment for former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, and his political boss, Radovan Karadzic, "managed to establish the link with Belgrade." In a telephone conversation from Croatia, he also explains that the ruling of another court, the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ), "considered in 2007 that, although there was a genocide in Srebrenica (Bosnia, 1995) Serbia was not directly responsible or an accomplice to it, although he erred by not preventing it.” “In other words, without the conviction of Stanisic and Simatovic, the ICTY would have finished its run without a single conviction directly implicating the Serbian state administration. The fascination of the evil generated by Mladic, Karadzic and Milosevic himself obscures the complex machinery of those who worked in the commission of the criminal plan for which Stanisic and Simatovic have been convicted”.
For Serge Brammertz, prosecutor of the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, this was also "the last chance to convict subjects for their participation in a joint criminal enterprise involving Belgrade, whose broader objective was ethnic cleansing in territories from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia”, he assured in a telephone conversation. He adds that “there has always been a political approach, both from Belgrade and from Zagreb, the Croatian capital, tending to say that they had nothing to do with it. That it was an internal armed conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians in Bosnia-Herzegovina”. And he stresses that the direct link between the Belgrade leadership and the crimes investigated was already pointed out by the Prosecutor's Office from the beginning in the case against Milosevic.
Jovica Stanisic headed Serbian state security, and the prosecution has portrayed him as one of Milosevic's most loyal associates. Franko Simatovic, aka Frankiedenied the existence of special troops within State security, but during the trial the link between the secret services and paramilitary groups active in areas controlled by Serbia in Croatia and Bosnia was revealed.
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The final appeal has been in the hands of the so-called International Residual Mechanism of Criminal Courts, in charge of concluding the minor processes still pending and the appeals, which now focuses its work on supporting the national jurisdictions of Bosnia and Croatia. There, there are hundreds of cases of alleged criminals from the same conflict, and their courts can take advantage of the ten million documents accumulated by the ICTY. It's the biggest challenge right now, and Brammertz admits he'd like to say they're doing well. "But it's not like that. There are still hundreds of perpetrators of crimes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina who have taken refuge in Croatia or Serbia, and since they have these two nationalities they are not extradited to Bosnian territory. There is partial support for these trials, but there is a hole in impunity and a political dimension to all of this.”
Before Croatia joined the European Union, it was very active in regional cooperation. Currently, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia aspire to enter the EU, and that favors, according to the prosecutor, that they do their part so that the culprits answer for their actions. He adds, however, a disturbing fact: “We expected reconciliation to be the main objective so many years later, but we see that the glorification of war criminals prevails in each of their communities. On the other hand, in some places in the former Yugoslavia the denial of the Srebrenica genocide is also frequent. [perpetrado en 1995 por las fuerzas serbobosnias, que aniquilaron a unos 8.000 varones musulmanes bosnios]”.
Tromp Vrkic acknowledges that the ICTY has done justice, "but if you look at who started the war and who is responsible, I don't think the sentences handed down fully reflect that." In his opinion, “Serbia lost the wars it declared, but it has not been treated as a loser. Despite this, public opinion seems to have the idea that the court focused on judging the Serbs. To illustrate the problem of reconciliation, he recalls that Kosovo and Bosnia have ended up divided territorially and are states in difficulties because of it. “In the first, there is North Kosovo [una zona habitada sobre todo por serbios que intenta ganar autonomía frente al resto, de origen albanés]. In Bosnia, we have the Republika Srpska [de población mayoritariamente serbia]one of the two political entities that make up the country, created by the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995. So the main victims maintain that reconciliation is difficult in these conditions”.
In its 30 years of existence, 161 defendants have passed through the ICTY, 90 sentences have been handed down (with 19 acquittals) and 4,650 witnesses have testified. Brammertz recalls that despite the years that have elapsed, there are still some cases of contempt and intimidation of witnesses, to be resolved by the same Residual Judicial Mechanism, but considers that the ICTY's message is clear: “International justice takes time, but it prevails. Look, if not, the arrest of Fulgence Kayishema, one of the most wanted men for the genocide in Rwanda”. A fugitive for 22 years, he was arrested on May 24 in South Africa. He is accused of having participated directly in the massacre of the Nyange church, burned down and then demolished, killing some 2,000 people sheltering inside.
For experts like Tromp Vrkic, the ICTY also leaves a legacy for the future related to the case of Ukraine. The Prosecutor's Office has always highlighted the link between the crimes committed in the Balkan wars and the territorial aspirations of the Serbs. “There is a clear analogy between what Serbia did in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of its Ukrainian neighbors. Instead of saying that he intended to modify the borders of Russia, he has alluded to the rescue of "his population" of Russian origin. The same thing that Milosevic did in his day with the Serbs of the former Yugoslavia, ”he explains.
To do this, he adds, Putin promoted the entities of Lugansk and Donetsk, now illegally annexed, "which repeat the formation of the Republika Srpska (Bosnia) and the Republic of Krajina (Croatia, reintegrated in 1998)." In his opinion, if the Russian president ends up answering to justice for the crime of aggression when invading Ukraine, "the work of the ICTY will show that political leaders can be prosecuted, although such a case should not take so long."
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