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Blagojevic Genocide Conviction Overturned

Appeals judges say he had no knowledge of genocidal intent of Srebrenica massacre perpetrators.
The appeals chamber of the Hague tribunal this week overturned the conviction of former Bosnian Serb army commander Vidoje Blagojevic for complicity to commit genocide at Srebrenica in July 1995.

On May 9, judges cut his 18-year prison sentence to 15 years, after upholding other convictions for his role in the mass killings that took place there.

The sentence of nine years' imprisonment for Blagojevic’s co-accused Dragan Jokić was confirmed, and judges dismissed all seven grounds of his appeal.

Before his sentence was overturned, Blagojevic was one of only two tribunal’s indictees found guilty of genocide charges. The other is former Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison in April 2004 after being convicted of aiding and abetting the Srebrenica genocide.

On January 17, 2005, Blagojević, former commander of the Bosnian Serb army’s Bratunac brigade, was convicted of complicity in genocide, aiding and abetting the persecution and forcible transfer of the Bosnian Muslim population of the Srebrenica enclave, as well as aiding and abetting the murders of Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Bratunac town in July 1995.

While Jokic, who was the chief engineer of the much larger Zvornik brigade, was found guilty of helping organise the burials and reburials of thousands of executed Muslims.

Back in 2005, the trial judges agreed that Blagojevic was not among the principal perpetrators of the massacre - but convinced by the prosecutors’ argument that “the practical assistance he rendered had a substantial effect on the commission of the crime of genocide”, they found him “guilty of complicity by aiding and abetting” the crime.

But this week, the appeals judges, led by the tribunal’s president Fausto Pocar, said that Blagojevic should have been acquitted on the genocide charge, because the original trial judges ruled that he did not know of the mass murders and only provided logistical support.

That meant he did not share the intent to commit genocide, said Pocar.

The judges also dismissed each of the prosecution's grounds of appeal, including one under which they sought to reverse the trial chamber's conclusion that Blagojević did not have knowledge of the mass killings that took place between July 12 and 14, 1995.

Blagojevic was arrested by NATO troops in Bosnia on August 10, 2001, while Jokic surrendered voluntarily five days later.

Their trial, which began in May 2003, shed some light on the inner workings of the Bosnian Serb army in the days following the takeover of Srebrenica and the massacre that ensued.

Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN safe area on July 11, 1995 and over the next few days expelled all of its inhabitants. They first imprisoned and then killed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys, burying them in mass graves scattered across the area.

Some of the men were killed within the first 24 hours in the improvised refugee camp of Potocari, but the majority were captured as they tried to flee Srebrenica through the surrounding woods and later transported to the nearby town of Zvornik for execution.

Two months before the attack on Srebrenica, Blagojevic was appointed the commander of an army brigade located in the nearby Serb-controlled town of Bratunac.

The prosecutors claimed that he was a member of a joint criminal enterprise to summarily execute thousands of Srebrenica men, expel the enclave's women, children and elderly, and cover the traces of the crime.

They also alleged that by the virtue of his position, Blagojevic was responsible for all the Bosnian Muslim prisoners captured, detained or killed within his brigade’s zone of responsibility.

Prosecutors further claimed that Blagojevic - whose soldiers guarded the prisoners while they were in Bratunac - must have known the fate that awaited the prisoners.

But Blagojevic’s court-appointed defence lawyer Michael Karnavas insisted that his client did not exercise any real authority over his brigade and was just a minor player in the massacre perpetrated mainly by military police and special police units under the command of the people close to fugitive Bosnian Serb army commander General Ratko Mladic.

Throughout the trial, Karnavas tried to portray Blagojevic as an incompetent man who had limited authority over his troops, and was oblivious to any genocidal intent of others.

The lawyer maintained that his client's brigade was subject to parallel chains of command that bypassed Blagojevic.

"[My client] was a commander of the Bratunac brigade, but that did not mean that he was involved in anything," Karnavas said in his closing arguments in 2004.

But prosecutor Peter McCloskey insisted that Blagojevic - competent or not - was "third in command" of the troops around Srebrenica, after Mladic, and Drina corps commander Krstic.

However, in the judgment handed down in January 2005, the judges appeared to agree with the notion that both Blagojevic and Jokic were secondary figures in the massacre, which was in their view run by the “commanders of the [Bosnian Serb army] staff and the MUP [interior ministry]”.

Nevertheless, they thought the evidence presented by the prosecution was convincing enough to convict Blagojevic for “complicity to commit genocide by aiding and abetting [it]”.

Blagojevic’s trial, which lasted a year and a half, was marked by a series of dramatic clashes between himself and Karnavas, who were not on speaking terms for the bulk of the proceedings.

Blagojevic used the antagonistic relationship between himself and Karnavas to demand a re-trial, claiming he was denied a right to fair proceedings by being represented by a counsel who was “working against him”.

But on May 9, the appeals judges dismissed this request.

There were surprisingly few reactions in Bosnia and Serbia to the appeals chamber’s decision to overturn part of Blagojevic’s conviction – which may be partly explained by the fact that Blagojevic was never considered one of the key players in the Srebrenica massacre, despite his relatively high rank at the time.

Only survivors of the 1995 mass killings raised their voice against this week’s ruling.

“I am saddened by this decision,” Amir Kulagic from Srebrenica told Sarajevo Avaz daily this week. “Blagojevic’s sentence was too mild in the first place, and now he’s been acquitted of the genocide charge. That is very discouraging for all of us.”

Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague programme manager.

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