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Visegrad Murder Trial Starts

Prosecutors say crimes of Milan and Sredoje Lukic reached “unprecedented peak of capricious cruelty”.
By Simon Jennings
The trial of two cousins began in The Hague this week with the prosecution describing cold-blooded shootings and the torching of houses full of civilians in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad in 1992.

Milan and Sredoje Lukic are charged with some of the most horrific crimes of the Yugoslav war, including the extermination, murder and cruel treatment of Bosniaks. What sets their case apart from many Hague trials is that the cousins are alleged to have perpetrated much of the violence with their own hands.

Prosecutor Dermot Groome told the court that the two defendants locked nearly 70 Bosniaks inside a house where the carpet was soaked with flammable chemicals and the windows barricaded, before Milan Lukic blew the building up.

“The flames quickly engulfed the solvent-soaked socks of the victims and the house itself,” Groome said. “The Lukic [cousins] remained outside the house shooting at any of the people who desperately tried to escape.”

The indictment against Milan and Sredoje Lukic alleges that they committed crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war between June 7, 1992 and October 10, 1994 – a period in which an estimated 13,000 Bosniaks were forcibly removed from Visegrad.

“Even the most seasoned judges, prosecutors and practitioners pause at the mention of the crimes perpetrated in Visegrad – crimes which reached an unprecedented peak of capricious cruelty not seen anywhere else,” Groome told the court.

The prosecution alleges that Milan Lukic returned to Visegrad in the spring of 1992 as commander of a paramilitary unit known as the “White Eagles”, which worked alongside the police and the military “in exacting a reign of terror upon the local Bosniak civilian population”.

In his opening statement, Groome addressed the individual crimes of which each man stands accused. He said it was a “frequent occurrence” for Milan Lukic and his accomplices to visit factories in Visegrad, identify the Bosniaks working there and “drag them away to their death”.

He alleged that on June 10, 1992, Milan Lukic went to the Varda furniture factory where he took seven Bosniak employees away, brought them down to the banks of the river Drina and shot them down.

“Seven lives ended in a matter of minutes with the automatic gunfire of Lukic’s weapon,” said Groome.

Groome said relatives later found the identity cards of the murdered Bosniaks lying on the ground at the crime scene. This, he said, was “an indication that their only crime was their Muslim name, [and] their only trial a quick glance at their identity card”.

The prosecutor then outlined how Bosniaks were burned alive inside a house on Pionirska Street in Visegrad on June 14, 1992.

Both the accused had, he said, taken people to the house where they were “physically squeezed into the bottom room”. Sredoje Lukic then prevented anyone escaping while Milan ignited explosives, torching the house.

The prosecution asserts that the cousins carried out a similar operation involving a further 70 Muslims in a house in the Bikavac area of Visegrad on June 27, and that Milan Lukic murdered a further five men by the Drina on June 7.

In conclusion, Groome quoted from a statement that Milan Lukic gave to the authorities in Serbia when he was questioned about the murder of an ethnic Serb. That statement said, “I personally liquidated many Muslims, extremists in the Visegrad area who are known to have maltreated the Serbian population… I came ready to kill anyone who was threatening Serbdom. I dispensed with tolerance in advance and so did the whole group which I led.”

Groome said the accused “was even thought to have killed Serbs he believed to be sympathetic to the plight of Muslims”.

Milan Lukic’s defence made its opening statement this week, in which lawyer Jason Alarid emphasised the right of the accused to receive a fair trial.

He said there was “an undercurrent of pre-judgement” based on the repeated accusations made against his client, and suggested that any involvement in the war meant he could not be wholly innocent.

“I’m not saying Mr Lukic is innocent. Innocent is a word that I don’t think anyone who participated in a war can say for themselves,” he told the court. “But I would like to say that I believe Mr Lukic is not guilty of these crimes as charged.”

Alarid pointed to the fact that Milan Lukic had grown up “with Muslims all around him”.

“His teacher was a Muslim, his friendships were with Muslims, his first girlfriend was a Muslim,” said the lawyer. “So why would he be accused of such a thing?”

Answering his own question, Alarid suggested the possibility of a case of mistaken identity as Milan Lukic was “about one of the most common names in Serbia or Bosnia”.

He said Lukic had been “falsely accused”, telling the court how rumours can become reality in the minds of local people.

“Once you are labelled… how easy is it to hate Milan Lukic yet not know who he is?” said Alarid.

He said that Bosniak witnesses would testify in court that they knew Milan Lukic did not commit the crimes of which he stands accused.

“I think that’s powerful in a land of such ethnic divisions,” he added.

To pre-empt any alibi offered by the defence, Groome said he would bring a witness who would testify that the cousins were definitely in Visegrad at the time of the alleged crimes, because one of them raped her.

“You will hear from [protected witness] VG 63, at the very time Milan Lukic and Sredoje Lukic claim that they were not in Visegrad she was being raped in the gymnasium in the primary school – Milan bringing her upstairs to forcibly penetrate her while Sredoje Lukic remained downstairs ensuring that the other detainees did not intervene,” said the prosecutor.

The prosecution sought to add rape charges to the indictment, but had their request dismissed on the grounds that it came too late.

Groome told the judges that unlike many other cases before the tribunal, this trial concerns men alleged to have personally committed the crimes with which they are charged.

“This case… deals with responsibility of men who with their own hands perpetrated the crimes in the indictment, spilling the victims’ blood before their own feet,” he said.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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