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Perisic Verdict Disappoints Bosnians

Judges’ ruling unlikely to enable Bosnia to relaunch genocide lawsuit against Serbia.
By Dzenana Halimovic, Ognjen Zorić

The verdict handed down this week in the case against former Yugoslav army chief Momcilo Perisic disappointed Bosnians because they say it did not set out Serbia's role in the Bosnian war.

On September 6, the Hague tribunal judges convicted Perisic for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Bosnia and Croatia in the early Nineties and sentenced him to 27 years imprisonment.

“This is a very harsh sentence and I expect Perisic to plea,” said Serbian defence Mmnister Dragan Sutanovac, who was one of the first Serbian officials to comment on Perisic’s sentence.

Addressing the Belgrade media on September 6, the minister suggested that war crimes trials should be the thing of the past because they didn’t bring any good to anyone in the region.

“It is high time for us to put an end to all these indictments and sentences and turn to the future, instead of constantly opening old wounds by talking about the past,” Sutanovac said.

The judgement is the first handed down by the tribunal in a case against a Serbian official for crimes committed in Bosnia.

Perisic, chief of the general staff of the Yugoslav Army, VJ, from August 26, 1993 to November 24, 1998, was found guilty of aiding and abetting murders, inhumane acts, persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, and attacks on civilians in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. He was also found guilty of failing to punish his subordinates for rocket attacks on Zagreb on May 2 and 3,1995.

However, Perisic was acquitted of charges of aiding and abetting extermination as a crime against humanity in Srebrenica and of command responsibility in relation to crimes in Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

Kada Hotic, from the association Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa, said she was disappointed with the judgement because “Perisic knew and had to know what was going to happen in Srebrenica if it fell to the Bosnian Serb army”.

More than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed in July 1995 when Bosnian Serb forces took over Srebrenica.

Fikret Grabovica, president of the association of families of children killed during the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo, was also dissatisfied with the verdict.

“Perisic should have been sentenced to life in prison. Horrible crimes were committed in Sarajevo during the siege and he was responsible as the person holding the highest position in the chain of command,” he said.

Executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade, Natasa Kandic, considers the ruling in the Perisic case to be “just and adequate”. However, she pointed to its shortcomings as well.

“This verdict has not resulted in a single fact that would shed more light on the main question here, which pertains to the true nature of a relationship between Serbia and Republika Srpska during the Bosnian war. It is clear to us all that what happened in Srebrenica could not have been done only by the Bosnian Serb forces and it would not have happened at all had there been no participation of Serbia,” Kandic said.

Bosnian officials were also critical of the verdict’s failure to point to what they are argue was Serbia’s direct involvement in Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, which would have enabled them to initiate a new genocide lawsuit against Serbia before the International Court of Justice, ICJ, in the Hague.

This court already ruled in 2007 that Serbia was not guilty of planning and carrying out genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, only for failing to prevent it and punish the perpetrators. Bosnia is entitled to relaunch the lawsuit within ten years of the initial ruling if it provides convincing new evidence that Serbia was directly responsible for genocide in this country.

However, according to observers in Bosnia and Serbia, the Perisic judgment fell short of providing such evidence.

“Bosnia hoped that the Perisic verdict would clearly show that Serbia’s highest authorities knew through Perisic that genocide in Bosnia had been prepared and that the Serbian state helped in its execution. That did not happen and I think that not a single new fact has been established in this judgement,” professor of international law in Belgrade Vojin Dimitrijevic said.

Professor of international humanitarian law at the Sarajevo faculty of political sciences Zarija Seizovic agrees with Dimitrijevic that the Perisic judgement is unlikely to strengthen Bosnia’s chances of revising the ICJ ruling on its genocide case against Serbia.

“Even if Perisic had been found guilty for the extermination in Srebrenica, it still would not have created sufficiently strong basis for revision of the process before the ICJ,” he said.

However, Bosnian lawyer Vasvija Vidovic, who represented several defendants at the tribunal, said victims of war crimes in Bosnia could still be satisfied with this judgement because it provides enough grounds for reparation claims.

“It is certain that victims, especially those in Zagreb, but in Bosnia as well, will have a solid basis for demanding compensation for the damages they suffered,” she said.

Dzenana Halimovic and Ognjen Zoric are RFE and IWPR reporters in Sarajevo and Belgrade.