Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnians Unhappy with Hague Judgement

Foca victims feel sentences handed down to their tormentors were too lenient
By Amra Kebo

Legal history was made at the United Nations war crimes tribunal this week when mass rape entered the international statute books as a crime against humanity - a charge second only to genocide.


Three former Bosnian Serb commanders received sentences ranging from 12 to 28 years for the rape and torture of Muslim women and girls in the town of Foca, south-eastern Bosnia in April 1992.


First reactions from Bosnians driven from Foca during the war were that the sentences were too lenient. They said the three defendants should have received the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.


Jim Landale, spokesman for the Registry and Chambers of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, told IWPR the judgment against the three former Bosnian Serb commanders, "had made legal history".


"This is really the first case of mass rape on this scale ever to be tried at an international tribunal, " he said. " It is the first case to focus exclusively on sex crimes."


Dragoljub Kunarac, a former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, and Radomir Kovac, a former paramilitary commander, were sentenced to 28 years and 20 years respectively on counts of multiple rapes, torture and enslavement. Zoran Vukovic, also a paramilitary, was sentenced to 12 years for rape and torture.


As she delivered the verdict, the presiding judge, Florence Mumba, told the court that "The three accused are not ordinary soldiers whose morals were merely loosened by the hardships of war ... They thrived in the dark atmosphere of the dehumanisation of those (they) believed to be enemies."


Landale explained that, in his view, the judgment was "especially significant and meaningful". The definition of rape as a crime against humanity meant "that these rapes were not one-off offences but were part of a systematic, widespread campaign designed to instil terror in the non-Serb population of south-eastern Bosnia."


The landmark ruling would, he said, set an important precedent for future prosecutions of sexual crimes.


Landale said the trial stood out because of the way the victims confronted their tormentors with "gruesome, compelling testimony".


The court heard testimony from 63 witnesses, including the harrowing accounts of 16 victims who described the months of rape, sexual slavery, abuse, beatings in Foca "rape-houses".


The two women prosecutors in the case, Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff from Germany and Peggy Kuo from the US Department of Justice, said they were satisfied with the sentences handed down. Many Bosnian victims of Serb aggression, however, were disappointed with the outcome.


One man who had lived in the town before the war expressed the discontent of many at the perceived leniency of the sentences. " It is sad when a man who committed such evil, who abused Bosniak women, got off with such a light sentence," he said.


Some thought the three men should have received life sentences, the maximum penalty laid down for the crimes. "I had expected a much higher sentence if I think of everything they did," said witness 96 for the prosecution. "That is what I expected. I don't trust these judgments any more."


Because of her disappointment at the sentences handed down, she said that she would not be returning to The Hague to testify in further cases.


Though rape was used by all sides during the Bosnian conflict, one European Union study estimated that Bosnian Serbs sexually abused 20,000 women in the first year of the 1992-1995 conflict alone.


Human Right's Watch, the London based rights group, expressed its concern over the failure to arrest more Foca case suspects for rape and other sexual crimes. Of the original eight indicted, three are still at large (two are already dead).


"It is intolerable for perpetrators of rape, torture and sexual slavery to remain free," said the group. " Failure to arrest also places those witnesses who courageously came forward to testify in the Foca case in serious danger of retaliation."


Amra Kebo is a regular IWPR contributor