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

Prosecutors Demand Life Sentences for Lukic Cousins

While defence calls for their acquittal on all charges in the indictment.
By Simon Jennings
The prosecution has called for life sentences to be handed down to Serb cousins Milan and Sredoje Lukic for their alleged role in the brutal mass killings of Muslims in eastern Bosnia during the 1992-95 conflict.



“What the two accused destroyed in June of 1992 is far beyond their capacity to repay,” lead prosecutor Dermot Groome told judges, as he delivered his closing arguments in the 11-month-long war crimes trial this week.



“Spending the remainder of their lives incarcerated is simply a nominal token towards the loss they occasioned.”



The Lukic cousins went on trial on July 9 last year, charged with a total of 21 counts of crimes against humanity allegedly carried out in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad between 1992 and 1994. Among the charges, it is alleged that they are both responsible for burning to death up to 140 Bosniak civilians – including women, children and elderly – in two separate house fires during June 1992.



Prosecutors accuse the Lukic cousins of trapping 70 Bosniaks inside a house on Visegrad’s Pionirska Street before setting it on fire.



“Milan Lukic, Sredoje Lukic and others… barricaded the people in one room of the [Pionirska Street] house… and placed an incendiary device in the room, engulfing both them and the house in flames,” said prosecutors in the indictment.



They are also charged with herding another 70 people into a house in Bikavac, just outside the town, before allegedly setting it alight.



“If the chamber finds the accused guilty of the Pionirska and Bikavac [fires], the prosecution recommends that it hand down a sentence that ensures the accused spend the remainder of their lives incarcerated, the most severe sentence within your power,” said Groome this week.



“It is incalculable what the two accused have taken from the people of Visegrad,” added Groome, referring to the lives that the defendants “stole” from the Visegrad community.



“The magnitude of their theft can never be calculated.”



In response to questions raised by the defence about the credibility of prosecution witnesses,

Groome this week emphasised the reliability of the latter and prosecutors’ overall case.



“These women of incredible strength and integrity, literally tempered by fire did not come to this tribunal to falsely accuse anyone,” he said.



“Not only has there been no demonstrated motive for them to fabricate anything, but there has been compelling evidence that where there may have been a motive to fabricate, none succumbed to it.”



Groome cited the evidence of one particular witness who gave evidence which implicated the two defendants in the Pionirska Street fire.



“I’m not actually defending the Muslim or Serbian people for that matter, I just came to tell what I have seen and what I’ve experienced,” said Groome, reading the words of the witness, who testified anonymously to seeing smoke and flames rising from the house on Pionirska Street in June 1992.



In addition to the fires, Milan Lukic is also accused of shooting five Bosniak men in cold blood on June 7, 1992, after having first lined them up along the bank of the Drina River, on the outskirts of Visegrad.



Prosecutors have also charged Milan Lukic with shooting another seven men, three days later after allegedly ordering the individuals out of a furniture factory where they worked.



This week, Groome said the court should send a message of deterrence that such crimes would not be tolerated by courts empowered to administer international justice.



“I ask the court to seize the opportunity to send a clear unequivocal message to those who might consider similarly egregious crimes,” said Groome. “There must be no question of the international community’s resolve to vigorously pursue and hold responsible those who commit crimes such as these during the conflict.”



In his hour-long response, Milan Lukic’s defence team, led by American lawyer Jason Alarid, called for the acquittal of its client on all charges in the indictment.



“The evidence falls well short of [that needed for] a conviction and you should acquit Mr Lukic on all counts,” Alarid told judges.



Alarid strenuously emphasised the legal threshold of “beyond a reasonable doubt” that binds judges in convicting a defendant, and proceeded to cite apparent inconsistencies in the prosecution’s evidence.



The lawyer, who has crossed swords with the prosecution throughout the trial, once accusing the prosecution of prejudicing the defence case by investigating his client for contempt of court, said, “We believe the office of the prosecutor has treated this court very much like a jury, attempting to sway its opinion not based on the quality of the evidence, but [on] the quantity of the accusations.”



He also told the judges to question the evidence they had heard in the case.



“There are serious inconsistencies between the [testimonies given by] eyewitnesses,” he said, referring to two witnesses who gave evidence about the shooting of Bosniaks on the bank of the Drina River.



One of the witnesses, who had testified anonymously, had said that he went to school with Milan Lukic, and that the accused had attended for a period of only two years. Alarid pointed to his client’s school records which showed that Milan Lukic went to school “for the full time”.



The same witness also testified about Lukic’s character as a schoolboy, said Alarid this week.



“He was soft spoken, and he took the time to say hi [to a Bosniak],” Alarid recounted the witness as saying.



“Is that someone we’d expect to be a future war criminal?” Alarid put to the judges.



Alarid further suggested this week that some witnesses had falsely accused his client in order to get justice for the victims of crimes in Visegrad during 1992.



He pointed to alleged victims from the house fires in Visegrad who appeared on the prosecution’s list of charges as having died. Following a further investigation, prosecutors admitted that three of the 18 house fire victims called into question by Alarid may still be alive.



Alarid further sought to shed doubt on the two house fires, citing the testimony of explosive experts he had brought to the tribunal to testify.



“The fires may not have even happened,” Alarid put to the judges, citing the evidence of his witnesses.



One witness testified that such a fire alleged by prosecutors would not have allowed for people to escape or to hear shots being fired by the defendants through the windows of the house.



Prior to this week’s hearing Alarid had asked for a time extension to make his closing arguments, however, judges denied him his request.



Milan Lukic was transferred to The Hague in February 2006 following his arrest in Argentina in August 2005.



During the trial at the Hague tribunal, Milan Lukic’s defence presented evidence from 31 witnesses; the prosecution called 45.



The defence counsel for Sredoje Lukic, Djuro Cepic, called only three witnesses to give evidence that his client was not in Visegrad at the time of the alleged crimes. Cepic has also called for his client to be acquitted on all charges listed in the indictment.



Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.