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

Stakic Sentenced to Life

Former Prijedor mayor found guilty of crimes against humanity, but prosecution fails to make genocide charges stick.
By Stacy Sullivan

Milomir Stakic was sentenced this week to life imprisonment, the maximum term allowed by the Hague tribunal, for his part in the deaths and deportations of tens of thousands of non-Serbs in the Prijedor area.


The former Prijedor mayor, dressed in a black suit, played nervously with his translation device as he listened to the judges’ decision on July 31.


The life sentence shocked many in the courtroom as Stakic was found not guilty of the two most serious charges spelt out in the indictment – genocide and complicity to genocide.


In reaching the judgment, presiding Judge Wolfgang Schomburg said that the trial chamber was unable to establish “specific intent to destroy in whole or in part” the Muslim and Croat population of the Prijedor municipality.


Rather, he said, Stakic and the rest of Prijedor’s Serb leadership had conspired to displace the non-Serb population in order to create an ethnically pure Serbian state.


“This intent to displace a population cannot be equated with an intent to destroy it as such,” Schomburg explained.


Noting 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, the judges found Stakic guilty of extermination, murder and persecutions.


In legal parlance, those crimes fall under the categories of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war.


At the outset of the sentencing hearing, Schomburg made it clear that the trial chamber did not find Stakic’s case to be one of genocide, but in what was clearly a foreshadowing of the punishment the trial chamber was about to pass down, he stressed that the “imposition of the maximum sanction is not restricted to the most serious imaginable criminal conduct”.


Stakic, a physician, was only 29-years-old when he was elected as vice-president of the Prijedor municipal assembly in January 1991.


Stakic’s fellow Bosnian Serb officials Simo Drljaca and Milan Kovacevic - who were also indicted for orchestrating the plan to expel or kill Prijedor’s non-Serb population - died before their trials could get underway.


Drljaca, the former Prijedor chief of public security, was killed by NATO troops in July 1997 while resisting arrest. Kovacevic, who served as Stakic’s deputy, died in the tribunal’s detention unit.


The tribunal’s indictment alleged that they formed a joint criminal enterprise aimed at forcing the non-Serb population out of the region.


Although the prosecution said it was disappointed by the genocide acquittal, it was pleased with the life term handed down. “We are very happy with the sentence as it reflects the gravity of the crimes committed in Prijedor and the role played by the accused in these crimes,” said prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian.


Bosnians who survived the infamous camps were also thrilled by the outcome. “Stakic got a sentence he deserved,” said Sabahudin Garibovic, the president of the Association of War Prisoners from Prijedor.


Muharem Murselovic, a deputy of the Republika Srpska National Assembly and a member of the Prijedor Municipal Assembly, who was imprisoned in Omarska, told IWPR, “I am pleased with the length of Stakic’s sentence because it will help us, the former prisoners, to ensure that the truth of what happened here will not be forgotten.


“I would personally prefer if the genocide charges had been proved, because that is exactly what happened in Prijedor, but it is not up to me to evaluate the work of the court.”


And Nusreta Sivac, an Omarska survivor, said, “While I was listening to the passing of the sentence and heard that he was found not guilty for the genocide and complicity to genocide, I could not believe what I was hearing because I thought that some kind of deal had been made. However, the life term gave me satisfaction.”


Stakic’s acquittal on the most serious charges was the third time the trial chamber has failed to find an accused guilty of genocide. Prosecutor Joanna Korner told IWPR, “We thought we had presented sufficient evidence to prove that it was a genocide.”


The only suspect to be found guilty of genocide at the tribunal has been Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic, who commanded the operation to overrun the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in 1995, which led to the deaths of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys. Krstic, however, received a lesser sentence of 46 years.


Stacy Sullivan is IWPR’s Hague project manager. Amra Kebo is a commentator for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.


More IWPR's Global Voices