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War Tribunal Sentences Five Croats

January 14, 2000

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) _ Five Bosnian Croat militiamen were found guilt today and sentenced to up to 25 years in prison for ``ethnic cleansing″ attacks against Muslims: gunning down families, burning people alive and torching scores of houses _ all on a spring day in 1993.

The U.N. judges convicted the Croatians for taking part in a killing spree in the central Bosnian village of Ahmici, which left more than 100 Muslim men, women and children dead. Every Muslim home was burned to the ground in the village, where some of the defendants had grown up alongside Muslim neighbors.

``Indisputably, what happened on April 16, 1993, in Ahmici has gone down in history as comprising one of the most vicious illustrations of man’s inhumanity to man,″ said presiding Judge Antonio Cassese at the international war crimes court on the Balkan conflict.

The verdicts followed 16 months of hearings and testimony from 158 witnesses in what prosecutors have depicted as one of the most horrific ``ethnic cleansing″ attacks in the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

The ruling sentenced Vladimir Santic, commander of a local police battalion, to 25 years in prison for crimes against humanity for passing on orders from superiors to men under his command. Co-perpetrator Drago Josipovic got 15 years.

Members of the Kupreskic family, brothers Zoran and Mirjan, and cousin Vlatko were given terms of up to 10 years.

A sixth defendant, Dragan Papic, was set free because Cassese said the evidence could not prove his guilt ``beyond a reasonable doubt.″

Unless the verdicts are appealed, the men will serve out their terms in one of several European countries that have offered to incarcerate Balkan war criminals.

The judgment was praised by the Bosnian leadership.

``Today, we are one step closer to justice than yesterday,″ said Mirza Hajric, adviser to the Muslim member of the Bosnian multiethnic presidency, Alija Izetbegovic.

Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte noted through her spokesman that the Ahmici trial was ``the first case of ethnic cleansing, pure and simple, brought before the justices of this tribunal.″

``The verdict and the sentences set down by the justices today are a benchmark for future cases of ethnic cleansing that will be brought before this tribunal by the prosecutor,″ said the spokesman, Paul Risley.

Since its establishment in 1993, the U.N. court has handed down eight convictions. Seven are under appeal. Only one convict has served out his term, in Norway.

In a separate case, an appellate tribunal was to begin today hearing the case of Bosnian Serb Dusan Tadic. It is the tribunal’s longest running case, dating back to April 1995.

The defendants in the Ahmici trial allegedly belonged to bands of armed Croatians who descended on the village and killed at least 103 Muslims, including 33 women and children on a spring day in 1993.

Entire families were gunned down, scores of houses were burned and two mosques were destroyed. People were burned alive.

When British peacekeepers came upon the village, all 172 Muslim houses had been destroyed, while not a single Croatian home had been touched.

The trial was one of five in a series known as the ``Lasva River Valley Indictment.″

According to the indictment, Bosnian Croat militia conducted ``a highly coordinated military operation″ to empty the area around the valley of Muslim inhabitants.

The trial of Gen. Timohir Blaskic, commander of Croatian forces in the area, finished last July, but no date has been announced for a verdict.

Although the Ahmici defendants were rank-and-file militiamen, some came from the town they were accused of attacking.

That forced the court to grapple with one of the central mysteries of the Balkan conflict: How neighbors, whose children once played together, became sworn enemies almost overnight.

Sakib Ahmic, a Muslim villager, testified that he had watched the Kupreskic brothers ``grow up into decent people″ until the fighting broke out in the village.

On April 16, 1993, the Kupreskics broke into his home and murdered his son Naser and daughter-in-law Zehrudina, as well as their children Elvis, 4, and Sejad, 3, Ahmic said.

Forced to watched the horror unfold, the family patriarch suffered severe burns after the attackers set fire to the home and fled.

Norwegian anthropologist Tone Bringa, who spent eight years studying interethnic relations in rural Bosnia, was called on as an expert witness.

Before the war, she said, Muslim Bosnians and their Roman Catholic Croat neighbors had been ``aware of their religious differences, but were tolerant towards them.″

However, propaganda by nationalist leaders and reports of violence elsewhere in the former Yugoslav republic sparked fear and suspicion, she said.

``As Yugoslavia disintegrated, and the national ideology took over, the understanding of neighbors of different faith underwent a gradual change,″ she told the court in July.

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