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


Serb politician fails to persuade appeal judges to reconsider jail term.
By Michael Farquhar

Appeals judges have upheld a ten-year prison sentence against a local Bosnian Serb politician who ordered an assault on an undefended village in May 1992 in which some 65 Muslim residents were executed.

Miroslav Deronjic admitted responsibility for the atrocity in Glogova and pleaded guilty to one count of persecutions as a crime against humanity in an agreement signed with prosecutors in September 2003.

As part of the same deal, he provided a 70-page affidavit implicating a number of top Hague indictees. And he testified in person in a series of war crimes trials, including that of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

At this week’s hearing, on July 20, appeals judges said there was no merit in any of the objections filed by defence counsel against Deronjic’s ten-year sentence, which was in line with the reduced punishment sought by prosecutors in return for his cooperation.

Defence lawyers had originally requested just six years’ imprisonment for their client.

The appeals ruling marks an orderly end to a case that has been plagued from the start with controversy concerning the legitimacy of the practice of arranging plea agreements.

At the heart of the debate have been outstanding questions about Deronjic’s role in other crimes during the Bosnian war, including the murders of some 8,000 men and boys from the town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

In their appeal, submitted to the tribunal in July last year, defence lawyers argued that the trial chamber that handled Deronjic’s case got its facts wrong about the part he played in the Glogova atrocity.

There is no question that their client – as president of a local wartime authority known as a crisis staff in the eastern Bosnian town of Bratunac – personally gave the order to attack Glogova in full knowledge that it had already been disarmed.

There is also no dispute that he told the attacking forces to torch buildings in the village and to make sure that its nearly 2,000 Muslim residents were moved on.

But defence lawyers questioned a number of finer points, such as the judges’ conclusions about the degree to which the assault was planned beforehand and the exact role played by Deronjic on the day it took place.

Defence counsel also argued that, in sentencing their client, judges had wrongly given too much weight to aggravating factors such as the large number of people who suffered as a result of the atrocity and the particular vulnerability of the unarmed victims.

In addition, they claimed the trial chamber failed to fully consider relevant mitigating circumstances, including the fact that Deronjic’s family have had to enter into a witness protection programme because of his cooperation with prosecutors.

Appeals judges, however, said the trial chamber’s rulings in each instance in question had been perfectly legitimate. And the five-member panel was unanimous in its decision to leave Deronjic’s punishment as it stood.

Since his arrest in July 2002, Deronjic’s case has had far-reaching consequences for other trials at the tribunal.

Besides testifying against Milosevic, he has also given important evidence in proceedings against Bosnian Serb parliamentary speaker Momcilo Krajisnik, charged with ethnic cleansing across Bosnia.

He has explained in detail how the policies of top Bosnian Serb politicians were implemented at grass-roots level, resulting in expulsions and murders of Muslim civilians.

He has also told judges how Belgrade armed local Serbs in the run-up to the outbreak of war, and how units of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, crossed into eastern Bosnia to join in fighting there.

Deronjic’s importance as a witness is upped significantly by the fact that in July 1995 he was put in charge of civil affairs in the town of Srebrenica, which had just fallen to the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS.

He has already testified in proceedings against several VRS officers who took part in massacring thousands of male prisoners from the town in the days following the assault. And he has agreed to appear as a witness against the two men generally considered the masterminds behind the atrocity – Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and VRS chief Ratko Mladic – if and when they arrive in The Hague.

The evidence already given by Deronjic before the tribunal includes the dramatic claim that Karadzic told him at least two days before Srebrenica fell to the VRS that everyone captured in the town ought to be killed.

But defence counsel representing other accused before the tribunal have succeeded in punching significant holes in Deronjic’s testimony.

He has admitted lying in some of his early statements to prosecutors for fear that his confessions could be used against him. And he has acknowledged that he conferred with other inmates at the UN detention unit about details, including the dates on which particular events occurred.

Deronjic’s case has also gone to the heart of a long-standing controversy about what place there is at the international tribunal for plea agreements, which are established practice in common law systems but are virtually unheard of in many civil law countries.

Judge Wolfgang Schomburg – who presided over the trial chamber that dealt with this trial and is a staunch opponent of such agreements – added an appendix to the written judgement against Deronjic in which he criticised in no uncertain terms the way in which the proceedings had been handled.

He said events in Glogova, which were part of a much wider campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Bratunac area, appeared to have been picked out “arbitrarily” for the purpose of filing charges against Deronjic.

And he added that it remained “extremely questionable” to him why the accused had not been charged in connection with the Srebrenica massacre, when his confessions alone appeared to form sufficient grounds for such an indictment.

On at least one occasion during the proceedings, prosecutor Mark Harmon was forced to explicitly deny that Deronjic’s plea agreement included an assurance that, in return for cooperation, he would not be charged in connection with the Srebrenica killings.

The prosecutor’s office stated repeatedly at the time that there was simply not enough solid evidence to put Deronjic on trial for those particular crimes.

However that may be, Judge Schomburg also declared in his statement that for the Glogova attack alone – which, he said, “had all the ingredients of one of the most heinous crimes against humanity” – he personally thought the accused should have gone to prison for at least 20 years.

Deronjic will remain in detention in The Hague until arrangements have been made to transfer him to the country where he will sit out the remainder of his sentence.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.