Perisic First Belgrade Official Convicted for Bosnia Crimes

But observers say judgement falls short of establishing what exactly Serbia’s role was during the Bosnian conflict.
  • Momčilo Perišić in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

Former Yugoslav army chief Momcilo Perisic was convicted this week of aiding and abetting crimes committed against civilians during the 44-month sniping and shelling campaign directed against Sarajevo, which left thousands dead, as well as the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, during which some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered.

He was sentenced to 27 years in prison with credit for time served. This is the first time that the Hague tribunal has rendered a verdict against a Serbian state official for crimes committed in Bosnia during the war.

Perisic was also found guilty, as a military commander, of failing to punish members of the Croatian Serb army, known as the SVK, for launching rocket attacks in the city of Zagreb in May 1995.

In total, Perisic was convicted of 12 out of 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which included murder, persecutions and inhumane acts. He was acquitted of an extermination charge related to Srebrenica.

As the verdict was read out in open court on September 6, Perisic, 67, took extensive notes but displayed no emotion.

Beginning in August 1993, Perisic was the highest authority in the Yugoslav army, based in Belgrade. He remained there as war raged in Croatia and Bosnia, but a majority of judges found that Perisic “repeatedly exercised his authority to provide logistic and personnel assistance that made it possible for the [Bosnian Serb army] to wage a war that he knew encompassed systematic crimes against Muslim civilians”.

For example, the majority found that Perisic created “personnel centres” to “regularise” the status of Yugoslav army officers who were fighting in the Bosnian Serb army, VRS, and in the SVK. This included the top commander of the VRS, General Ratko Mladic, who was recently arrested after 16 years as a fugitive.

“[These officers] officially remained members of the Yugoslav army even as they were fighting in Bosnia and Croatia under the banners of the VRS and SVK,” presiding Judge Bakone Justice Moloto stated, reading from the verdict.

Furthermore, “while many officers voluntarily accepted transfer, General Perisic made it clear that those who refused to be sent to the VRS or SVK would be dismissed from the Yugoslav army in one way or another,” he said.

“General Perisic and other leading Yugoslav officials sought to keep the real function of the personnel centres secret in order to avoid further criticism or sanctions from the international community,” Judge Moloto continued.

The bench further determined that the crimes committed by the VRS “were not perpetrated by rogue soldiers acting independently”.

“Rather, they were part of a lengthy campaign overseen by top VRS officers on the Yugoslav army’s payroll, including General Mladic,” the judge stated.

Perisic, the judges found, “had knowledge that the VRS’s operations encompassed grave crimes against civilians” yet he continued to provide logistical, financial and personnel support.

The verdict also cited statements by wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, currently standing trial at the tribunal, who is quoted as saying that “nothing would happen without Serbia. We do not have those resources and we would not be able to fight”.

As regards the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Perisic was found guilty of aiding and abetting the crimes of murder, persecution and inhumane acts, but the bench acquitted him on extermination charges because “the evidence does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that General Perisic could have reasonably foreseen, based on his knowledge of the VRS’s prior conduct, that the VRS would engage in the radical, systematic extermination of thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica”.

While the bench concluded that Perisic did have effective control over the SVK at the time of the Zagreb rocket attacks in 1995, they found the opposite was true as regards the VRS during the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.

“The evidence reflects General Perisic’s inability to impose binding orders on [VRS commander] General Mladic…who maintained a measure of independence throughout the war,” Judge Moloto said.

The full 644-page judgement describes this in greater detail, and states that Perisic, along with ex-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, tried to convince Mladic to accept a peace plan on numerous occasions in 1994 and 1995, but Mladic always refused.

The judges quote from the minutes of a Supreme Defence Council meeting in November 1994 - attended by high-ranking Serbian political and military officials - where Perisic states that Mladic “has been manipulated by his politics and that is how he behaves”.

The judgement is also notable for the lengthy dissenting opinion of Judge Moloto, who, unlike the other two judges on the panel, does not believe there is sufficient evidence to find Perisic guilty for aiding and abetting the crimes in Sarajevo and Srebrenica, and does not think that he had effective control over SVK troops in Croatia.

The assistance that Perisic provided to the VRS was “too remote” from the crimes to qualify as aiding and abetting, Judge Moloto writes in his dissenting opinion.

“To conclude otherwise, as the majority has done, is to criminalise the act of war, which is not a crime according to the statute of the tribunal,” he continues. “In addition, it raises the question: where is the cut off line? For instance, would a manufacturer of weapons who supplies an army with weapons which are then used to commit crimes during a war also be criminally responsible?”

Furthermore, Judge Moloto states that “there is no clear connection between the assistance provided and the commission of crimes in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. He also notes that only about ten per cent of 3,644 bullet casings found in the aftermath of the Srebrenica massacre could be “clearly attributed” to assistance provided by the Yugoslav army.

Judge Moloto also disagrees with the majority finding that Perisic knew his support for the VRS would aid crimes in Sarajevo and Srebrenica, and further states that evidence on these points is “largely circumstantial”.

This judgement has been highly anticipated by observers in the region and internationally, and many hoped it would finally establish what exactly Serbia’s role was during the conflict. This is especially true in light of the fact that Milosevic died midway through his trial in 2006 and a verdict in that case was never rendered.

Experts say that the judgement does answer some questions, but not all of them.

“[Perisic] has been convicted of aiding and abetting Bosnian Serb crimes but [the judgement] hasn’t established Serbia’s role in the outbreak of the war, in organising the war as a whole,” said British historian Marko Attila Hoare who formerly worked as a research officer in the Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, at the tribunal.

According to Marko Prelec, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who also used to work in the OTP, the judgement does not necessarily live up to the high expectations people had for it.

“I think there’s a pattern in the last years with judgements from The Hague, and every one is the one people are waiting for, and people are more or less disappointed every time,” Prelec told IWPR.

“So in Serbia, I think it’s been received as kind of a shock, but in Bosnia it will be seen as a disappointment — he was not found guilty of extermination [for Srebrenica], and not even charged with genocide, and I think that’s because we are gradually approaching the truth about these things.”

The tribunal, Prelec said, “got it about right”.

“[The judgement] showed in great detail the ways in which Serbia was deeply involved in supporting the army of Republika Srpska, but they were not really pulling all the strings,” he said. “They played vital supporting role and that is the truth that is emerging. It’s an uncomfortable truth for everyone.”

Others say the judgement reflects what was already known about Serbia’s role, at least among researchers and academics.

“It seems to reflect the generally accepted knowledge that there was clear logistical support, there was financial support, and there was influence but there wasn’t direct command over the army of Republika Srpska,” said Florian Bieber, a professor of South East European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria.

Bieber further stated that the conclusions about Mladic having some degree of independence and rejecting proposed peace plans are also not surprising.

“There is a lot of empirical evidence that suggests Mladic did act on his own in crucial areas, but of course within a framework that was acceptable for the state leadership in Belgrade to a degree that it wouldn’t stop him,” Bieber said. “It could have stopped him, but it didn’t feel it necessary, so in that sense the ruling seems to reflect what we have from other rulings and historical records.”

In terms of Judge Moloto’s dissent, Prelec said it is “always uncomfortable” when one exists, because in some systems that would lead to a full acquittal.

“The one thing we can say for sure is that [there’s likely to be] a really interesting appeal and this is not over,” Prelec said.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


Also in this issue

She describes moment when she managed to identify her child in exhumed mass grave.
But observers say judgement falls short of establishing what exactly Serbia’s role was during the Bosnian conflict.
Judges’ ruling unlikely to enable Bosnia to relaunch genocide lawsuit against Serbia.