In the first international sentencing for war crimes since World War II, a tribunal at The Hague Friday condemned a young Bosnian Croat soldier to 10 years in prison for his role in the massacre of 1,200 unarmed Muslims by a Bosnian Serb execution squad.
The victims were among an estimated 7,000 Muslim men and boys believed slain after Bosnian Serb forces overran the U.N.-declared “safe haven” of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia on July 11, 1995.
Drazen Erdemovic, 25, confessed to taking part in the killings, regarded by human rights experts as the worst atrocity in a brutal 3-1/2-year war. Busloads of captured men, some blindfolded, some begging for their lives, were lined up on a remote farm in Serb-held Bosnia and gunned down by an eight-member Bosnian Serb army squad that included Erdemovic, according to his accounts. The bodies were then bulldozed into mass graves.
Friday’s sentencing represented a rare moment of success for the U.N. war crimes tribunal, which has indicted 74 suspects but has been able to prosecute only two.
Most suspected war criminals - including the Bosnian Serbs’ war-time political and military leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic - remain at large in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and the rump Yugoslavia. It appears that little or no effort is being made by local or international authorities in those countries to detain the suspects. NATO-led peacekeeping troops who are enforcing the accords that stopped the war in Bosnia last year have thus far resisted international demands that they pursue the suspects. In testimony July 5 in The Hague, Erdemovic told the court he briefly saw Mladic in the days following the fall of the Srebrenica.
Friday, Erdemovic sat silently as Judge Claude Jorda of France read the sentence. The former soldier covered his face when the judge rejected defense claims that Erdemovic had to follow orders to kill or risk being killed himself.
Jorda instead followed a prosecution recommendation for leniency because of Erdemovic’s age, his show of remorse and his cooperation with tribunal investigators.
His lawyer, Jovan Babic, said he would appeal the verdict which he said was too harsh.
Prosecutors hailed Erdemovic’s contribution to establishing the first independent evidence that the Srebrenica massacres took place, in the face of Bosnian Serb claims that the stories of mass killings are merely Muslim propaganda.
Still, the Tuzla native who flitted from army to army during the wars in the former Yugoslavia was only a bit player in a much larger drama, and his sentencing represents only an initial step in the pursuit of justice.
In his statements to Le Figaro, Erdemovic claimed he had killed 70 prisoners.
“I tried to kill as few people as possible,” he told the newspaper. “I did my best not to shoot the youngest.”
The victims were killed during a five-hour period and ranged in age from late teens to the mid-50s, Erdemovic said. They apparently were men who did not try to escape Srebrenica.