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Life Term for Milan Lukic

Former Serb paramilitary found guilty on all charges, including burning alive of 120 civilians.
By Simon Jennings
An ex-Bosnian Serb warlord has been sentenced to life imprisonment at the Hague tribunal and his cousin and accomplice to 30 years in jail, for perpetrating some of the most horrific crimes of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.



Milan Lukic appeared tense as he sat in the dock on July 20, when judges convicted him of the murder of up to 132 Bosnian Muslim civilians in the town of Visegrad in south-eastern Bosnia in 1992.



The 42-year-old former paramilitary was found guilty on all charges, including the burning alive of about 120 civilians after trapping them inside two separate houses and setting them on fire.



As the president of the Hague court, Judge Patrick Robinson, described each of his crimes, a stony-faced Lukic shook his head and tapped his foot nervously.



Lukic had pleaded not guilty to a total of 21 counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war – including murder, torture and extermination – relating to six incidents in Visegrad between 1992 and 1994.



His cousin, Sredoje Lukic, who was a police officer in Visegrad, was convicted of aiding and abetting the first of the house fires – on the town’s Pionirska Street – as well as joining Milan Lukic in the beating and mistreatment of civilians at the Uzamnica prison camp.



Sredoje, who fought back tears as the verdict was read out, was found to have been present as Milan rounded up the victims, stripped and robbed them before shutting them inside the Pionirska Street house which he then set ablaze. He was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment.



Judge Robinson, who headed the three-judge panel hearing the trial, said both men’s crimes were “characterised by a callous and vicious disregard for human life”.



Judge Robinson then described the torching of the second house, in the Bikavac area of the town.



“Gunshots were fired at the house and grenades were thrown inside, setting the house on fire,” he said, citing witnesses who had described the cries of the people inside as sounding “like the screams of cats”.



Judges this week emphasised the brutal way in which Milan Lukic carried out the attack at Bikavac.



“He used the butt of his rifle to push people into the house, saying, ‘Come on, let’s get as many people inside as possible.’ After the victims were locked inside, he shot at the house, threw grenades into it and subsequently set it on fire using petrol,” Judge Robinson said.



However, by a majority of two judges to one, the bench acquitted Sredoje Lukic of any involvement in the Bikavac fire, ruling that the evidence against him had been inconclusive.



In reaching their verdict, judges dismissed the evidence of the Milan Lukic defence, which had sought to challenge the occurrence of both house fires.



They ruled that the conclusions of the defence experts, who visited the original site of the fires in January 2009 – 17 years after the events – were “practically without foundation”. Among their conclusions was that there could not have been a fire inside the room of the house on Pionirska Street of the nature alleged by the prosecution. However judges noted that under cross-examination the experts agreed with prosecutors that a fire could have taken place at the house.



Judges also dismissed the evidence of the defence’s psychological expert, George Hough, which questioned the testimony of the only survivor of the Bikavac fire, Zehra Turjacanin.



Emotionally and physically scarred for life, Turjacanin had travelled to The Hague to give her evidence about the savage events of June 1992, and in their ruling judges confirmed her to be “a witness of truth”.



Sentencing Milan Lukic to a life imprisonment, Judge Robinson said, “The Pionirska Street fire and the Bikavac fire exemplify the worst acts of inhumanity that a person may inflict upon others. In the all too long, sad and wretched history of man’s inhumanity to man, the Pionirska Street and Bikavac fires must rank high.



“These horrific events stand out for the viciousness of the incendiary attack, for the obvious premeditation and calculation that defined it, for the sheer callousness and brutality of herding, trapping and locking the victims in the two houses, thereby rendering them helpless in the ensuing inferno, and for the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on the victims as they were burnt alive.”



In addition to the fires, Milan Lukic was convicted of the murder of five men on the banks of the Drina river on June 7, 1992. Judge Robinson described how evidence had shown that he had taken seven Bosnian Muslim men from the town before shooting them in cold blood.



“He and the soldiers then shot the men in the back, killing some of them instantly and then returning to fire additional shots into those bodies they thought to still be alive,” Robinson said.



Milan Lukic was also convicted of a second incident in which he took seven Bosnian Muslims from their place of work at Visegrad’s Varda furniture factory and in similar style shot them by the river in full view of one victim’s relatives.



While the defence had presented an alibi for the two shooting incidents – claiming that Milan Lukic was in Belgrade and Novi Pazar in Serbia from June 7 to 10, 1992 – judges said that this suffered from “a number of glaring inconsistencies” and found the testimony of two witnesses lacking in credibility.



“The trial chamber has rejected the alibi for the Drina river and Varda factory incidents as a cynical and callously orchestrated artifice,” Robinson said.



Robinson said that during the trial, judges had heard “a very large amount of evidence” about other crimes that were not in the Hague indictment, such as rapes, murders and beatings allegedly committed by the Lukic cousins.



According to the written judgement, one witness testified that women had been raped in Visegrad by Milan Lukic.



Before the Hague trial, prosecutors had unsuccessfully tried to add rape charges to the cousins’ indictment at the eleventh hour, less than a month before proceedings began on July 9, 2008.



Following the verdict, spokeswoman for the prosecution Olga Kavran said that the judges’ recording of evidence of such crimes on the record did not alter the prosecution’s inability to seek a conviction.



Kavran said that due to the court’s completion strategy – under which it must wind up trials by the end of 2010 – no more charges would be brought against the Lukic cousins in The Hague.



However, she stated that local war crimes courts in the former Yugoslavia could bring new charges for any crimes not tried at the Hague tribunal.



A spokesman for the prosecution at the Bosnian war crimes court in Sarajevo declined to comment on whether it was considering any additional charges against the two men.



This was not Milan Lukic’s first conviction for crimes committed during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.



He has already been found guilty in absentia by the district court in Belgrade for abducting and murdering 16 Bosniaks in the Serbian town of Sjeverin in October 1992.



He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the crime, while he was evading justice at the Hague tribunal. Milan Lukic was arrested in Argentina in August 2005 after seven years on the run.



According to a spokesperson for the Belgrade court, Lukic would still serve this sentence were he not to serve the entirety of the life sentence handed down in The Hague.



“When Lukic becomes available to [Serbian] domestic authorities, he will be sent to prison,” Ivana Ramic confirmed to IWPR this week.



However, because Lukic was sentenced in absentia he would have the right to request a re-trial.



Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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