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Mrdja Jailed for 17 Years

Tribunal insisted sentence must reflect the “seriousness, cruelty, and inhumanity” of the Vlasic mountain massacre.
By Rachel S.

Darko Mrdja, a former Bosnian Serb police officer, was sentenced to 17 years in prison on March 31 for his role in the murders of around 200 civilians and the attempted murders of 12 others near central Bosnia’s Vlasic mountain in 1992.


As presiding judge Alphonse Orie read out a summary of the court’s judgment, Mrdja, 36, appeared visibly shaken, at times closing his eyes and sighing deeply. When the sentence was announced, he lowered his head and covered his face with his hands.


Mrdja, a former member of a Prijedor special police unit known as the Intervention Squad, was indicted by the tribunal in April 2002. Although he initially pled not guilty to the indictment’s three counts in July 2003, five days before his trial was set to begin he entered into a plea agreement with the prosecution.


Mrdja agreed to plead guilty to two counts - murder as a violation of the laws or customs of war, and inhumane acts as a crime against humanity - and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.


In return, the indictment’s remaining count was dropped and the prosecution promised to ask for a sentence of between 15-20 years.


The crimes for which Mrdja pled guilty took place on August 21, 1992. On that day, hundreds of non-Serb civilians from Prijedor were gathered, loaded onto buses and trucks, and told that they would be sent to the city of Travnik for a prisoner exchange.


The convoy never reached its promised destination. Instead, the buses and trucks came to a stop on the side of a road near Vlasic mountain. Mrdja helped to separate more than 200 military-aged men from the rest of the group, loaded them onto two buses, and brought them to the side of a deep ravine where they were then shot dead.


In its sentencing judgment, the tribunal said that “Darko Mrdja personally and directly participated in the unloading, guarding, escorting, shooting, and killing of the unarmed men”.


Only twelve people survived the massacre. One of them - Midhet Mujkanovic, now 39 years old - testified at Mrdja’s sentencing hearing in October 2003.


Mujkanovic told the tribunal, “They lined us up…then they brought us to the very edge…facing the abyss. Then people started screaming, yelling. I knew right away something bad was going to happen.


“I can’t remember to this day whether somebody pushed me or instinctively I jumped - I just know that I leaped into the abyss. And then I heard people crying, and heard shooting, even the throwing of hand grenades.”


Mujkanovic was forced to use a corpse to protect himself from being shot as he tried to get under a nearby rock. “So the dead man, whose name I don’t know to this day, saved my life,” he told the court.


Because of his experiences, Mujkanovic does not sleep well, has difficulty concentrating, and is unsure whether he will be able to continue working, the court heard.


In deciding to sentence the accused to 17 years, the court first considered the seriousness of his crime. Although Mrdja was not the architect of the massacre, the fact that he selected civilians and subsequently murdered, or tried to murder, them, knowing a widespread and systematic attack was underway “makes the crimes charged especially serious”, according to the tribunal.


The judges also stressed that “most of [the victims] were subjected to a level of suffering which significantly exceeded [that] usually suffered by victims of murders and inhume acts”, adding that this was an aggravating factor in their decision.


Another aggravating factor the judges considered was the profound vulnerability of the victims, many of whom had previously been detained in camps. The court also gave a small amount of weight to the fact that Mrdja was a police officer and thus in a position of authority.


In mitigation, the tribunal considered Mrdja’s substantial cooperation with the prosecution, his guilty plea, and his expression of remorse.


“I am prepared to serve time in order to pay for this. I offer my sincere apologies to all of the families,” Mrdja said at his sentencing hearing.


The fact that Mrdja had a difficult upbringing, behaved well in detention, and recently married and had two children - one of whom is chronically ill - were also given a small amount of attention by the court.


Notably, the tribunal rejected Mrdja’s claim that he had committed the crimes under duress. At his sentencing hearing, he told the court, “I did not do this because I wanted to or enjoyed doing so … I did it because I was ordered to do so. I can tell you now what would have happened had I refused to carry out the order - I assure you that they would have killed me right then.”


But the tribunal did not agree. “There is no evidence that the orders were accompanied by threats causing duress,” the court found. “Moreover, the orders were so manifestly unlawful that Mrdja must have been well aware that they violated the most elementary laws of war and the basic dictates of humanity.”


Mrdja is entitled to credit for the 658 days he has already spent in detention.


Rachel S. Taylor is an IWPR editor in The Hague.