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US Judge Awards Bosnian Muslims $140M

April 29, 2002

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ATLANTA (AP) _ A federal judge awarded $140 million Monday to four Bosnian Muslims who claimed they were beaten and tortured by a Bosnian-Serb soldier who moved to the United States after the war.

The four men sued the former soldier, Nikola Vuckovic, in 1998 under laws allowing torture victims to seek redress in American courts, even if the offenses occurred elsewhere.

U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob awarded $35 million each to Kemal Mehinovic, Muhamed Bicic, Safet Hadzialijagic and Hasan Subasic. In an October trial, they told of being detained and tortured at the hands of Vuckovic and other Bosnian-Serb soldiers. Two of the victims currently are U.S. residents, and live in Salt Lake City.

The award will be difficult to collect, since Vuckovic disappeared just before the trial. But Mehinovic, 45, said legal accountability was more important than the money.

``I brought this case because I felt an obligation towards those who were killed or tortured by Vuckovic,″ he said. ``I am satisfied with the result. He will no longer be able to live peacefully in the United States.″

Vuckovic sought asylum in the United States and was living in an Atlanta surburb. He didn’t show up for the trial and his family said he had gone back to Bosnia to care for his sick mother.

But officials with The Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights group that spearheaded the suit, said Vuckovic is believed to be back in the Atlanta area.

The witnesses testified about frequent beatings, teeth pulled out with pliers and heads smashed against walls while soldiers hurled anti-Muslim abuse. All said they lost about half their body weight during detention.

``(Vuckovic’s) actions were consistent with the pattern and practice of abuses against Bosnian Muslims and demonstrate that he was well aware of being part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing that was both widespread and systematic,″ Shoob said in the order.

The action was the first of its kind handled by fledgling Center for Justice and Accountability, an arm of Amnesty International. Executive Director Sandra Coliver said the large award ``sends a message that U.S. courts consider this behavior to be reprehensible, and that the U.S. is not safe haven for people who commit these crimes.″

The suit was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act, enacted by the first Congress in 1789. The law allows foreign residents to sue in U.S. courts those who break ``the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.″

Since 1979, more than 20 lawsuits citing the Alien Tort Claims Act have been filed in the United States.

The potential scope broadened with the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act, which entitles U.S. citizens to bring the lawsuits as well, and spells out that torture and summary execution are personal injuries for which people can seek damages.

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