Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
During closing arguments this week, prosecutors at the Hague tribunal requested a lifetime prison sentence for Serbian ex-army chief General Momcilo Perisic, alleging that he was responsible for an “environment of impunity” that led to the death and injury of thousands of civilians.
“Perisic’s persistent failure to uphold military discipline perpetuated an environment of impunity,” prosecuting lawyer Mark Harmon said. The soldiers that Perisic sent to fight in Bosnia and Croatia could thus take “comfort” in knowing they would not be punished, Harmon continued.
As the highest authority in the Yugoslav army, VJ, from August 1993 to November 1998, Perisic remained in Belgrade while war raged in Bosnia and Croatia. However, prosecutors allege that he provided financial, logistical and material support to Serb forces in both Croatia and Bosnia by personally establishing two “personnel centres” within the VJ to covertly deploy officers to those two break-away republics and pay their salaries.
Perisic is accused of aiding and abetting the 44-month sniping and shelling campaign on Sarajevo that left about 12,000 civilians dead, as well as the murder of some 8,000 men and boys during the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He is also accused of failing to investigate rocket attacks on the Croatian city of Zagreb that killed at least seven civilians and wounded nearly 200 in May 1995.
He faces 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, persecution and extermination. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In this case, prosecutors are trying to establish a direct link between the leadership in Belgrade and the crimes committed on the ground in Bosnia and Croatia. One of the only other cases that attempted to do this was that of ex-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, but he died midway through his trial and a judgement was never rendered. The trial of Serbian intelligence officers Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic is ongoing.
“The crimes in Srebrenica and Sarajevo were foreseeable consequences of state policies encouraged and promoted from Belgrade,” Harmon said. “In the process of implementing them, the lives of ordinary men, women and children were devastated … they were collateral damage of state policies.”
Perisic “aided and abetted crimes from his office in Belgrade” and didn’t see any of the victims until they appeared in the courtroom as witnesses, Harmon continued.
“To General Perisic, [the victims] simply were not on his radar, not part of equation he considered when implementing policies of his political masters [and] providing assistance to [Bosnian Serb forces] despite the knowledge that… [they were] ethnically cleansing large swathes of Bosnian territory and would do so in the future,” Harmon said, adding that when Perisic learned of the Srebrenica massacre, he remarked that he “didn’t want to know anything about it”.
“[Perisic] acted like an ostrich…burying his head in the sand about the single largest atrocity that happened during the war,” Harmon said.
He also denied the defence contention that any VJ officers serving in Bosnia or Croatia were members of those armies and therefore not subordinate to Perisic, noting that they were paid from VJ personnel centres in Belgrade.
“General Perisic never fired a bullet, never personally set fire to a house, and never personally drove a non-Serb from their home,” Harmon said.
“We have a reaction to people who are hands on killers, people who have blood on their hands, people who terrorise, who destroy their cultural sites and monuments.”
However, Perisic’s “physical distance” from the crimes does not make Perisic less responsible for them, Harmon concluded.
“Our request is that you convict [Perisic] on all counts and impose a sentence of life,” he said.
The defence responded by claiming that the “astounding” amount of evidence produced during the trial “does not in itself prove a case”.
“Much of the evidence…is documentary evidence, written words, that are open to interpretation,” Gregor Guy-Smith, a member of Perisic’s defence team, said.
He noted that the guilt of the defendant must be established beyond a reasonable doubt—meaning that “there is no reasonable explanation of the evidence other than the guilt of the accused.
“If there are two… plausible explanations, one which points to guilt and one which points to innocence, you must adopt that which points to innocence,” Guy-Smith said. “That is your job, that is your duty, that is the law.”
He also questioned some of the basic elements of the case.
“The question you have before you is whether or not the assistance given [by the VJ] had substantial effect on the crimes? How are you to gauge that?” Guy-Smith remarked.
“You don’t know how much ammunition the [Serb armies in Bosnia and Croatia] had before. You don’t know how much ammunition they used, you don’t know how much they received, you don’t know whether the ammunition that was used was in fact involved in criminal behavior.
“What is being suggested is that … there was a war - we’ve defined the war as being a bad war and not a good war - crimes were committed, and the prosecution contends that Perisic knew about some of those crimes, and therefore he should be found liable…You’re being asked …to engage in conjecture and speculation in absence of hard evidence and that is something I trust that you won’t do.”
On the heels of this week’s closing arguments, the tribunal lifted confidentiality on numerous court exhibits and other documents – including transcripts of Serbia’s Supreme Defence Council, SDC, meetings – that were originally sealed as per Serbia’s request. The SDC meetings are thought to be key to gaining a full and accurate picture of Serbia’s involvement in the wars of the Nineties.
While the material itself will not be made public until after a verdict is rendered, this week the parties were able to discuss the content of the SDC meetings – which were attended by Milosevic, Perisic and other high-ranking officials - for the first time in open court.
According to Novak Lukic, another member of the defence, the SDC sessions show the “objective of the state leadership of the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] to have the war ended” and also convey the distinction between “influence and control” over the Serb armies in Bosnia and Croatia.
Lukic pointed to the 28th session of the SDC in November 1994, where he quotes Milosevic as saying that it was “impossible” for the Bosnian Serb leadership “to achieve the goal they wanted to achieve” in Bosnia and that “it is simply impossible that the international community will go along with the fact that two-thirds of the population is crammed into half the territory”.
Perisic is quoted as suggesting that “we try to persuade the [Bosnian Serbs]” to accept a proposed peace plan “otherwise they will face a complete disaster”.
At another SDC meeting in August 1995, Lukic said that Milosevic asked Hague indictee General Ratko Mladic – who commanded the Bosnian Serb army – whether he would accept a negotiated peace plan, and Mladic responded that he was “only a soldier of the people and not an elected representative. Leave this to politicians”.
Mladic apparently refused to sign a statement expressing his desire for peace, Lukic said.
He stressed that when VJ soldiers and officers were sent to fight in Bosnia and Croatia, they became part of those armies and were subject to that specific chain of command.
“They were part of a functioning army within their chain of command established by law,” he said. “There was nothing untruthful or concealed in that chain of command. Nothing whatsoever.”
He said the “crimes committed were not in the chain of command of the VJ”.
“Please assess all evidence in totality,” Lukic asked the judges.
“The chamber can assure you that [we] will look at the entire evidence,” Presiding Judge Bakone Justice Moloto said. “We’ve been reminded of this several times during the defence argument, so I just want to make this assurance to you.”
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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