Defence appeal against length of sentence, but prosecution suggests it wasn’t long enough.


Defence appeal against length of sentence, but prosecution suggests it wasn’t long enough.

Sunday, 20 November, 2005

At an appeals hearing this week for Milomar Stakic who received a maximum life term for crimes against humanity, the defence argued that the sentence was disproportionate to the verdict while the prosecution insisted that he should have been found guilty of genocide.

Stakic, a physician and leading official in Prijedor, told the court, “I never committed a crime, ordered a crime or justified a single crime either then or now.”

He was found guilty of extermination, murder, persecutions and deportations in relation to his role as president of the Municipal Assembly of Prijedor and the final voice and authority in the area.

The trial chamber said that more than 1,500 non-Serbs were murdered in and around Prijedor; that rapes, sexual assaults, beating and torture took place regularly; and that a minimum of 20,000 people were deported between August and September 1992.

Stakic was a member of the local crisis staff, a wartime authority, which planned, supervised and oversaw three of the most notorious detainment centres in northwest Bosnia – Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm.

Stakic had been charged alongside other Prijedor crisis staff members - the former Prijedor police chief, Simo Drljaca, who was killed while resisting arrest and Milan Kovacevic, who died of natural causes while awaiting trial in The Hague.

They were all charged as part of a “joint criminal enterprise”, aimed at creating an all-Serb state. The trial chamber agreed that the crisis staff’s goal was to eliminate any perceived threats, especially by Muslims, to the plan and to force non-Serbs from the Prijedor municipality.

However, Stakic was found not guilty of the most serious charges against him – genocide or complicity to genocide. The court said the “specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a group as such” was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The prosecution told the appeals hearing that it should reconsider the July 31, 2003 verdict of not guilty on the genocide charge.

The crisis staff was the first to receive the original order to create the camps, in conditions of great secrecy.

The prosecution added that the secretive element was a clear signal that killings and torture would occur.

Stakic ensured that the police and military could operate with total immunity, and did this knowing that killings would occur, the prosecution claim.

They argued that Stakic helped plan to consolidate Serbian power in Prijedor “at all costs”, pointing to his active role in organising the massive displacement of the non-Serb population. They argued that because he knew the killings were likely to occur, he also intended for them to occur.

“He was found guilty because of his own conduct during this time,” said prosecutor Mark McEwan. “As a result of such he’s personally responsible for the extermination that occurred during that time in Prijedor.”

McEwan also pointed out that, as a leading local official, Stakic never tried to bring justice to the people responsible for the 1,500 camp deaths; that he never ordered an investigation into the camps; and refused to acknowledge publicly that the camps existed.

The defence then made its case, both against the original guilty verdict and the prosecutor’s arguments over genocide.

They said Stakic had never visited the camps. Defence counsel John Ostojic also questioned whether knowledge of the killings alone was equivalent to backing them, “The prosecution must prove the defendant consciously visualised the deaths of people.”

He criticised the prosecution’s use of the term joint criminal enterprise in the original trial, “a net to catch anyone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong ethnic background”.

In relation to the genocide charge, they argued that because the trial chamber found Stakic lacked the intent to kill, “not guilty was the right verdict”.

The defence also used the same argument in reaction to the crimes for which he has been found guilty, saying he should not have been convicted of extermination, because it also requires an objective to kill.

Finally, both sides addressed the life sentence, which surprised tribunal observers when announced in 2003, because Stakic had been found not guilty of genocide.

Only one defendant has so far been found guilty of genocide in The Hague. In 2003, Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic was convicted of the charge for his role in the Srebrenica massacre. His sentence of 46 years was reduced on appeal in March 2004 to 35 years.

The prosecution argued that the sentencing of Stakic was fair due to the seriousness of the crimes and his role in them. It re-stated its appeal brief and said that no further review was necessary because the conclusion reached by the trial chamber was reasonable.

The defence said the sentence was out of proportion with Stakic’s involvement in the crimes, calling it “guilt by association”.

Ostojic added that Stakic’s role was indirect, and that at least one other crisis staff member hadn’t been charged at all.

“Just because he’s a doctor he should be punished more?” Ostojic asked. “Should we hold different people accountable based on their education or professional background?”

Stakic himself took the stand at the end of the hearing. He told the court he had never discriminated against anyone based on their ethnicity, “The only distinction I make between people is good people and evil people.”

The appeal court decision will be released at a later date.

Adrienne N Kitchen is an IWPR intern in The Hague.

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists