Mon, 06 Mar 2000

UN tribunal jails war criminal for 45 years

By Richard Norton-Taylor

LONDON: A former commander of Croatian forces in Bosnia was sentenced last Friday to 45 years in jail -- the longest prison term handed out by the UN war crimes tribunal and the first verdict against a senior military officer in the former Yugoslavia.

Gen. Tihomir Blaskic, 39, who led Croat troops in central Bosnia during the war, was found guilty on 20 counts, including crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva convention and violations of the laws or customs of war.

As a snub to the tribunal, he was promoted to general in the Croatian army after his indictment at the war crimes tribunal in the Hague was announced in 1995.

But in a highly significant judgment, the court said Blaskic was implementing policies formulated at the highest levels of the Croatian government, thereby formally ruling that the fighting between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia was an international conflict.

"The Republic of Croatia did not content itself with merely remaining a spectator on the sidelines or even seek simply to protect its borders," the tribunal said. "It intervened in the conflict, pitting Muslims and Croats of central Bosnia against each other."

Blaskic was responsible for a rampage by Bosnian Croat defense forces across the Lasva river valley which left hundreds of Muslims dead and forced thousands more to flee the area.

He ordered the murder of more than 100 men, women, and children, and emptied the Bosnian village of Ahmici of every one of its Muslim inhabitants before torching their homes in April 1993.

Though Blaskic was not charged with killing Muslims by his own hand, he was found guilty of failing to prevent war crimes and to punish the perpetrators.

"The crimes you committed, General Tihomir Blaskic, are extremely serious," the French presiding judge, Claude Jorda told him. "The acts of war ... the villages reduced to rubble, the houses and stables set on fire and destroyed, the people forced to abandon their homes, the lost and broken lives are unacceptable."

The indictment accused him of systematic attacks on cities and villages, destruction of homes and mosques, forcible transfer of civilians, taking hostages and using them as human shields.

The verdict ended a 25-month trial in which 158 witnesses produced more than 3,000 pages of evidence. It was only the eighth in the seven-year history of the Hague tribunal.

Blaskic's wife, Ratka, collapsed and was carried sobbing from the court after hearing the sentence. Blaskic himself appeared calm.

His defense counsel, Russell Hayman, said he was "surprised and disappointed" at the ruling and said Blaskic intended to appeal. "This is not a just verdict," he said.

The prosecution spokesman, Paul Risley, said the verdict marked an important, new, powerful phase for the tribunal. "We will no longer be forced to concentrate on the small fish who carried out the crimes. We can focus on the most senior individuals who orchestrated the crimes, commanded units or attempted to cover the crimes committed. This is a remarkable day for the tribunal," he said.

Col. Bob Stewart, who led British UN troops into Ahmici after it was burned and was a key witness at the trial, applauded the verdict. "We were pretty sure he was responsible for controlling the soldiers ... You can't call yourself a commander unless you take responsibility for soldiers that committed atrocities," he said.

Goran Granic, the Croatian deputy prime minister, said the sentence was too harsh.

The Bosnian government cautiously welcomed the verdict, but insisted that more of the alleged masterminds of the massacres need to be brought to justice.

-- Guardian News Service