Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ahmici 5 sentenced to a total of 64 years
illustrations of man's inhumanity to man".
On Friday (January 14) five Bosnian Croats were sentenced to a total of 64
years imprisonment for their participation in the attack on the village of
Ahmici in the Lasva river valley, central Bosnia.
Trial Chamber II (presiding Judge Antonio Cassese, Judge Richard May and
Judge Florence Mumba) found five of the six accused guilty of persecution on
political, racial or religious grounds--legally qualified as crimes against
humanity--and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from six to twenty five
Concluding that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt
his participation in the attack, the Trial Chamber found the sixth
co-accused, Dragan Papic, not guilty and ordered his immediate release.
Papic was released from the United Nations (UN) detention unit the same
The longest sentence--25 years imprisonment--was handed down to Vladimir
Santic, who took part in the attack on Ahmici as a commader of the military
police and its special unit "The Jokers".
Next in line came Drago Josipovic with 15 years imprisonment, Zoran
Kupreskic (10 years), Mirjan Kupreskic (8 years) and Vlatko Kupreskic (6
In addition to Count 1 charging them with persecution, the five convicted
were accused of participation in the killingS of entire families and certain
inhabitants of Ahmici. The Trial Chamber ruled the prosecution had failed to
prove beyond reasonable doubt the majority of charges relating to the
This applies to the gravest accusation filed against the brothers Zoran and
Mirjan Kupreskic. Both men were charged with breaking into the house of
witness KL, killing his son, daughter-in-law and two children, including a
three-month-old baby, before setting fire to the house and thereby causing
serious burns to witness KL.
Highlighting numerous omissions and discrepancies in witness KL's testimony,
the judges did not accept his accusations against the Kupreskic brothers,
concluding: "He [KL] did not appear to the Trial Chamber to be an untruthful
witness or one who had set out to lie deliberately; however, he may have
The only exception concerned charges related to the murder of Musaver Puscul
and inhuman acts against members of his family. The Trial Chamber found that
both Santic and Josipovic were present at the scene of the crime, as part of
a group that went to the Puscul's house "with the common intent to kill
and/or expel its inhabitants and to set it [the house] on fire." Even though
Santic and Josipovic may not themselves have killed Musaver Puscul, the
accused, the judges concluded, have "fulfilled actus reus of murder as
The Trial Chamber established that Josipovic took place in the attack on at
least one more Moslem house, where Nazef Ahmic and his 14 year-old-son were
killed. But, as this murder was not charged as a separate count, the judges
did not pronounce a separate sentence, even though they accepted it as
"relevant evidence for the charge of persecution."
The events in the village of Ahmici on April 16, 1993 were described by the
Court in the following way:
"In a matter of a few hours, some 116 inhabitants, including women and
children, of Ahmici, a small village in central Bosnia, were killed and
about 24 were wounded; 169 houses and two mosques were destroyed. The
victims were Moslem civilians. The Trial Chamber is satisfied, on the
evidence before it in this case, that this was not a combat operation.
"Rather, it was a well-planned and well-organised killing of civilian
members of an ethnic group, the Moslems, by the military of another ethnic
group, the Croats. The primary purpose of the massacre was to expel the
Moslems from the village, by killing many of them, by burning their houses,
slaughtering their livestock and by illegally detaining and deporting the
survivors to another area.
"The ultimate goal of these acts was to spread terror among the population
so as to deter the members of that particular ethnic group from ever
returning to their homes."
"Indisputably, what happened on 16 April in Ahmici has gone down in history
as comprising one of the most vicious illustrations of man's inhumanity to
man. Today, the name of that small village must be added to the long list of
previously unknown hamlets and towns that recall abhorrent misdeeds and make
all of us shudder with horror and shame: Dachau, Oradour sur Glane, Katijn,
Marzabotto, Soweto, My Lai, Sabra and Shatila, and so many others."
In his summary of the Judgement, Presiding Judge Cassese said: "We have come
to the conclusion that, with the possible exception of one of the accused,
this Trial Chamber has not tried the major culprits: those who are most
responsible for the massacre of 16 April 1993; those who ordered and planned
[the massacre]; or those who carried out the very worst of the atrocities
against innocent civilians."
Vladimir Santic is the one "possible exception". And "those who are most
responsible" could be political and military leaders of Bosnian Croats--men
like Tihomir Blaskic, Dario Kordic and Vladimir Cerkez. These three were
tried or are still being tried before other Trial Chambers and
responsibility for the massacre in Ahmici makes up a very significant part
of their indictments.
Blaskic is awaiting the pronouncement of sentence, which is expected in the
latter half of February. The trials of Kordic and Cerkez will, based on
previous experience, continue until the end of this year. Even though all
three will be sentenced based on evidence proven in their own trials, some
of the legal findings in the "Kupreskic & Others" Judgement may be of
significance for their cases as well. A large number of the same prosecution
witnesses appeared in all three trials - at least in those areas concerning
the general situation in the Lasva River valley and the attack on Ahmici.
It seems logical, therefore, that the judges may draw the same conclusions
from the same testimonies concerning the nature of the attack ("not a combat
operation"); the status of the victims ("mostly civilians, off-duty soldiers
and some people spontaneously taking up arms to defend themselves"); and the
military significance of Ahmici ("an undefended village").
The judges concluded in the "Kupreskic & Others" case that the attack on
Ahmici "was not a single or unauthorised event brought about by rogue
factions of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) or the military police. It
was part of an overall campaign in the Lasva River valley, intended to bring
about 'ethnic cleansing' through a systematic and widespread attackas a
pre-condition to unrestricted Croat dominance over the area, promoted or at
least condoned by the HVO and military police and, more generally, by the
leadership of Croatia. The reason for this forced expulsion was the
achievement of territorial homogeneity by the Croats. The Moslems were
identified as the group that was to be expelled".
"The entirety of the evidence," according to the Judgement, "shows that the
attack by the Croats was a planned and highly organised operation. The use
of different classes of heavy weaponry, such as rocket launchers and
anti-aircraft guns, proves that it was not only an operation by a special
purpose unit like the Jokers, which did not have such an arsenal at their
disposal. But that the HVO as a professional army was itself actively
involved in the attack.
"The Trial Chamber is satisfied that there were no significant military
units or installations of the Bosnia-Herzegovina (B-H) Army present in the
area of the village at the time of the attack. But that the HVO and military
police actually exploited the absence of the B-H Army for a surprise attack
on the village."
Further, "The Trial Chamber also finds beyond reasonable doubt that the
attack was not a military combat operation such as a pre-emptive defensive
strike against a threat of Moslem armed aggression. On the contrary, the aim
of the attack was the forced expulsion of the Moslem population from the
area, as from the entire Lasva River valley. The attack was carried out in
an indescribably cruel manner, sparing not even the lives of women and small
children. The many bodies of civilians found in the village after the
attack, especially those of very young children, the wholesale destruction
of Moslem and only of Moslem houses and even the destruction of the
livestock of the Moslem families, do not match the picture the defence tried
to paint, which was that of a military battle between two armies...
"Nor does the concept of a military combat engagement accord with the fact
that the houses of Moslem civilians were broken into and the male members of
military age pulled out and executed. Above all the intentional killing of
children, at least one of which (sic) was only three months old, cannot be
reconciled with the view that this was an action demanded and guided by
strategic or tactical necessities. In sum, the damage and harm inflicted by
the Croats on the Moslem civilian population was not collateral; it was the
primary purpose of the attack."
The judges' conclusion on one other argument presented by the defence in the
"Kupreskic & Others" case is interesting given its similarity to arguments
presented by the defence counsel in the trails of Blaskic, Kordic and
Cerkez. Namely, the attack on Ahmici was carried out in retaliation for
similar attacks by Moslem forces on Croat villages.
The judges concluded that such a defence is irrelevant.
Even if proven, similar attacks by the Moslem forces on Croats would not
justify the attack carried out on Ahmici. Reprisals against civilians are
absolutely forbidden in any situation, including civilians located in combat
The Judgement underscores: "In international law there is no justification
for attacks on civilians carried out either by virtue of the tu quoque
principle (i.e. the fact that the adversary is committing similar crimes
offers a valid defence to a belligerent's crimes) or on the strength of the
principle of reprisals. Hence the accused cannot rely on the fact that
allegedly there were also atrocities committed by Moslems against Croatian
Undoubtedly, the most important part of the judgement in "Kupreskic &
Others" case is the one that further elaborates the notion of "ethnic
cleansing" as persecution on political, racial or religious ground.
That "connection" was established for the first time in the sentence handed
down to Dusko Tadic, May 1996 (See Tribunal Update 27). In that judgement
the policy, euphemistically been described as "ethnic cleansing", was
legally defined as persecution on political, racial or religious grounds and
categorised as a crime against humanity.
This time, the Trial Chamber went further in elaborating that concept.
This judgement states that persecution, listed under Article 5(h) of the
Tribunal's Statute, "has never been comprehensively defined in international
treaties. Furthermore, neither national nor international case law provides
an authoritative single definition of what constitutes 'persecution'.
Accordingly, considerable emphasis will be given in this judgement to
elucidating this important category of offences."
Rejecting the defence's argument that persecution should be given a narrow
interpretation, thereby excluding crimes found in the remaining sub-headings
of Article 5, the judges stated that in that case "a lacuna would exist in
the Statute of the Tribunal. There would be no means of conceptualising
those crimes against humanity which are committed on discriminatory grounds,
but which, for example, fall short of genocide, which requires a specific
intent 'to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or
religious group'. An example of such a crime against humanity would be
so-called 'ethnic cleansing', a notion which, although it is not a term of
art, is particularly germane to the work of this Tribunal."
Although the actus reus of persecution may be identical to other crimes
against humanity, what distinguishes the crime of persecution is that it is
committed on discriminatory grounds. The Trial Chamber therefore accepted
the submission of the prosecution that "persecution, which can be used to
charge the conduct of ethnic cleansing on discriminatory grounds is a
serious crime in and of itself and describes conduct worthy of censure above
and apart from non-discriminatory killings envisioned by Article 5"..
The Trial Chamber defined the actus reus of persecution under Article 5(h)
of the Statute as the "gross or blatant denial, on discriminatory grounds,
of a fundamental right, laid down in international customary or treaty law,
reaching the same level of gravity as the other acts prohibited in Article 5
of the Statute. As a crime against humanity the common prerequisites of a
link with an armed conflict, a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian
population in furtherance of a systematic policy, and the grave nature of
the offences also apply. The requisite mens rea is the intent to
discriminate, to attack persons on account of their racial or religious
characteristics or political affiliation as well as knowledge of the
widespread or systematic nature of the attack on civilians."
"In determining whether particular acts constitute persecution, the Trial
Chamber wishes to reiterate that acts of persecution must be evaluated not
in isolation but in context, by looking at their cumulative effect.
Although individual acts may not be inhumane, their overall consequences
must offend humanity in such a way that they may be termed 'inhumane'. This
delimitation also suffices to satisfy the principle of legality, as inhumane
acts are clearly proscribed by the Statute."
In the light of its broad definition of persecution, the Trial Chamber
observed that the prosecution "cannot merely rely on a general charge of
'persecution' in bringing its case. This would be inconsistent with the
concept of legality. To observe the principle of legality, the prosecution
must charge particular acts (and this seems to have been done in this case).
These acts should be charged in sufficient detail for the accused to be able
to fully prepare their defence."
In sum the judgement concluded a charge of persecution must contain the
(a) those elements required for all crimes against humanity under the
(b) a gross or blatant denial of a fundamental right reaching the same level
of gravity as the other acts prohibited under Article 5;
(c) discriminatory grounds.
In his summary of the judgement, presiding Judge Cassese particularly
stressed the gravity of the crimes for which the sentences, ranging from six
to twenty five years, were pronounced:
"Persecution is one of the most vicious of all crimes against humanity. It
nourishes its roots in the negation of the principle of the equality of
human beings. Persecution is grounded in discrimination. It is based upon
the notion that people who share ethnic, racial, or religious bonds
different to those of a dominant group are to be treated as inferior to the
"In the crime of persecution, this discriminatory intent is aggressively
achieved by grossly and systematically trampling upon the fundamental human
rights of the victim group.
Persecution is only one step away from genocide - the most abhorrent crime
against humanity - for in genocide the persecutory intent is pushed to its
uttermost limits through the pursuit of the physical annihilation of the
group or of members of the group. In the crime of genocide the criminal
intent is to destroy the group or its members; in the crime of persecution
the criminal intent is instead to forcibly discriminate against a group or
members thereof by grossly and systematically violating their fundamental
In the present case, according to the prosecution - and this is a point on
which the Trial Chamber agrees - the killing of Moslem civilians was
primarily aimed at expelling the group from the village, not at destroying
the Moslem group as such. This is therefore a case of persecution, not of
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