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Appeals Judges Rejig Stakic Punishment

The 40-year term which replaces the original life sentence for Milomir Stakic could mean the man responsible for the notorious Prijedor detention camps actually spends more time behind bars.
The Hague tribunal’s appeals chamber has overturned the only life sentence ever handed down by the court – to Serb politician Milomir Stakic, who was responsible for the notorious detention camps in Bosnia’s Prijedor region in 1992.

The 40-year prison term which Stakic received instead could in practice mean he spends an even longer period behind bars, since the ruling lacks the review clause that was appended to the original sentence.

In his appeal, Stakic had sought acquittal on all counts, or at the very least a retrial.

But the appeals judges upheld the findings of the trial chamber that the accused - as “the leading political figure” in Prijedor during the period in question - was responsible for crimes including persecution and extermination.

At the same time, much to the disappointment of Muslims who have ventured back to Prijedor since the war ended, judges confirmed the finding that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of genocide.

The Keraterm, Omarska and Trnopolje camps in the Prijedor municipality became a symbol of the brutality of the conflict in Bosnia, with images of emaciated detainees behind barbed wire evoking memories of the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War. At the end of the original trial proceedings against Stakic, the judges had seen enough evidence to conclude that rapes, sexual assaults and beatings took place at the detention camps.

They noted that at least 20,000 non-Serbs either fled Prijedor or were deported, and held Stakic responsible for over 1,500 killings.

The appeals chamber dismissed a series of objections by defence lawyers against the findings of the trial judges, including claims that the latter had denied him a fair hearing by refusing to hear certain witness testimony and by admitting “unreliable and untrustworthy” evidence into the case.

The appeals chamber did absolve Stakic of legal responsibility for certain acts of deportation – again, on a technicality – but slapped on an additional charge of forcible transfer instead. Both acts are classed as crimes against humanity.

The judges were fractionally more sympathetic to defence objections concerning the sentence handed down at the end of the trial proceedings, agreeing that the chamber had been wrong to treat matters such as Stakic’s background as a medical doctor as aggravating factors.

They also acknowledged that the trial chamber had been out of order to insist that, once Stakic had been transferred to a host state to serve out his sentence, the authorities holding him should review his sentence after 20 years. The appeals judges said this was inconsistent with the tribunal’s rules, which stipulate that decisions on early release are to be made by the laws of the host country and then checked by the Hague tribunal’s president.

The 40-year prison term that Stakic received instead is still equivalent to the longest ever handed down by the tribunal at the appeals stage. The same punishment was also handed down to Goran Jelisic, the self-confessed murderer who infamously labelled himself the “Serbian Adolf”.

A review of a fixed-term sentence like the one Stakic has received commonly occurs after the individual has served two-thirds of the total period. In Stakic’s case, this would be more than 26 years – further away, in fact, than the review date set by the trial judges the first time round.

Stakic will be given credit for the five years that he has already been in custody.

Bosnian Muslims who have returned to Prijedor since the end of the war expressed dissatisfaction with the decision, with at least some viewing it as commuting Stakic’s sentence.

Muharem Murselovic, who has testified in The Hague against Stakic and another Bosnian Serb politician, Radoslav Brdjanin, lamented the fact that the 44-year-old accused, a man who “killed the very soul of Prijedor”, might still have a chance to eventually live as a free man.

Seida Karabasic, who returned to Prijedor a year ago, added that the original life sentence had been of symbolic value.

Isabelle Wesselingh, who has written a book on the wartime events in Prijedor and on related trials in The Hague, noted that the appeals chamber had at least cemented the finding that far from being random acts of violence, Stakic’s crimes were committed as part of a systematic campaign.

She also pointed to the appeals judges’ dismissal of Stakic’s claim that some non-Serbs who left Prijedor during the war did so voluntarily.

But among returnees, there was disappointment that the appeals chamber rejected prosecutors’ efforts to get charges of genocide reinstated. The original trial judges said they had not seen enough evidence to prove that Stakic had been in the state of mind necessary for a genocide charge to stick – the intention to destroy a group, in whole or in part.

Nusreta Sivac, who worked as a judge in Prijedor’s municipal court before being interred in the Omarska and Trnopolje detention camps during the war, told IWPR that she understood how difficult it is to convict someone of genocide. Nonetheless, she was disappointed with the finding.

“Personally, I would be more satisfied with a shorter sentence if it included genocide charges,” she said.

Those interviewed by IWPR spoke of the many problems faced by Muslim returnees to Prijedor, including widespread unemployment and the fact that many of Stakic’s colleagues from the war period continue to hold positions of responsibility in the area.

“It’s now up to the local courts to deal with this [latter] issue and bring to justice those who are responsible,” Sivac said.

The Hague court is due to wind down its work over the next few years and has already stopped issuing war crimes indictments.

A number of other Hague cases which are yet to be concluded do deal at least in part with crimes in Prijedor. These include the indictments against the tribunal’s most wanted fugitives, former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and his army chief Ratko Mladic.

Judges in The Hague have decided to transfer the cases against four other Prijedor indictees to Bosnia’s newly-established specialist war crimes chamber. The decision is currently under appeal.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter. Merdijana Sadovic is a regular IWPR contributor.

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