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COURTSIDE: Keraterm Camp Trial - Genocide Charges Dropped

Tribunal prosecutors are struggling to make genocide charges stick.
By Mirko Klarin

Hague prosecutors last week failed for the third time to secure a conviction on charges of genocide.


Dusko Sikirica, the former commander of the Keraterm detention camp in Prijedor, was acquitted of genocide by trial chamber III, before judges Patrick Robinson (presiding), Richard May and Mohamed El Habib Fassi Fihri. Prosecutors have yet to succeed in proving beyond reasonable doubt a criminal intent (mens rea) to commit genocide.


The judges concluded that, "the prosecution has failed to prove the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, religious or racial group as such". Notably, there is no genocide, without such specific intent.


Sikirica will remain in custody, charged with crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war. He is accused of the persecution, murder and the inhuman and cruel treatment of detainees in the Keraterm camp. His defence lawyers begin presenting their case on June 27.


This was the third attempt by prosecutors to prove "genocidal intent" in relation to crimes in Bosnia.


In July 1998, the first such case was cut short by "vice major" when Dr Milan Kovacevic died nearly three weeks into his trial. He had been deputy president of the so-called crisis staff in Prijedor in 1992. Prosecutors alleged he was instrumental in setting up and running the notorious detention camps at Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje.


In 1999, a second attempt to make the charge stick came unstuck half way through the trial of Goran Jelisic. After prosecutors had finished presenting their evidence, the trial chamber concluded on its own initiative (proprio motu) that there was no evidence that Jelisic - the so-called "Serbian Adolph" - had killed with "genocidal intent" in Brcko in May 1992.


According to the judges, Jelisic killed "randomly", "for pleasure", and "for himself and according to his will". Jelisic was found guilty of crimes against humanity, for 14 confessed murders and several dozen others attributed to him by the prosecutor. He was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment.


Prosecutors appealed against the acquittal for genocide. Jelisic has appealed against the length of his sentence. The appeals chamber verdict is scheduled for late July this year.


In the Sikirica case, efforts to prosecute on charges of genocide also came to a halt halfway through the trial. After prosecutors concluded their case Sikirica's defence lawyer submitted a "motion for judgement of acquittal". During last week's hearing on the motion Sikirica's lawyer, Michael Greaves from the United Kingdom, claimed among other things that "only 300 people" were killed in Keraterm, "very few, in relation, to the total number of Muslims in Prijedor".


Greaves argued the killings were not committed with a "genocidal intent" but mostly for "private reasons" such as revenge and robbery.


Prosecutor Daryl Mundis countered that the Prijedor camps were set up within a framework of systematic, widespread and planned ethnic cleansing. As commander of one of the camps, Sikirica had therefore participated in the full knowledge that he was taking part in the destruction of part of an ethnic group - namely the leaders or elite among the Prijedor Muslims.


The judges, however, concluded that the prosecution had not presented persuasive evidence to prove such an intention on the part of the accused. He will continue to be tried on other charges, and it remains to be seen whether the prosecution will appeal against his acquittal on genocide charges.


Later this month the fourth genocide trial - of former Bosnian Serb army Drina corps commander General Radislav Krstic - will also come to an end. Krstic is charged with genocide for his alleged role in the massacre of over 7,000 Bosniak men and boys, following the fall of the United Nations "protected area" of Srebrenica to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.


Several other major genocide trials are pending - former Bosnian Serb leaders Momcilo Krajisnik and Biljana Plavsic face charges for crimes in Bosnia; Radoslav Brdjanin and General Momir Talic for crimes in Bosnian Krajina; Dragan Nikolic, the former commander of the Susica camp, for crimes in Eastern Bosnia; Dr Milomir Stakic for crimes in Prijedor; and Colonel Dragan Obrenovic for crimes in Srebrenica.


At least three fugitives also face genocide charges - former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, his military chief General Ratko Mladic and ex Omarska camp commander Zeljko Meakic. Mladic and Karadzic in fact face two indictments for genocide - the "general" indictment for genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Srebrenica indictment.


Unless prosecutors want a repetition of previous failures, they need to re-examine their strategy for proving "genocidal intent". Perpetrators have apparently been very careful not to leave behind any traces of genocidal intent, and legal or investigative strategies may have to be adjusted accordingly. To date, a court founded in part to establish the truth about alleged genocide has so far failed to find anyone directly responsible for such a crime.


Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor for the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief-of SENSE News Agency.