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Serbs sentence Muslims detained by U.S. troops to up to 20 years

April 24, 1997

ZVORNIK, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ In a trial that a U.N. official called a travesty, a Bosnian Serb court on Thursday sentenced three Muslims handed over by the U.S. Army last year to 20 years each for murder.

Relatives of the Serb victims reacted with joy after the verdict was read in the packed courtroom. Some of them shouted ``death to the murderers!″

When the trial opened last week in this town in the Serb part of eastern Bosnia, the defendants claimed they were tortured into confessing by Bosnian Serb police. The court denied the men their choice of lawyers, appointing its own.

The case of the Muslims has gained wide publicity. The men claimed to have escaped from a massacre of thousands of Muslim men when Bosnian Serbs captured the town of Srebrenica, south of Zvornik, in July 1995.

They said they had survived months living in the wild as a peace plan was finalized, and made their way to the line between Serb territory and the Muslim-Croat federation. They claim they surrendered when they spotted U.S. soldiers patrolling the former front line in May 1996.

Soldiers in the peace force were skeptical of the men’s account. Some of them were wearing military uniforms, carrying weapons and had recent haircuts, and they did not immediately tell the American soldiers they were Srebrenica survivors, U.N. officials say.

Three of the seven, Nedzad Hasic, Ahmo Harbas and Behudin Husic, were charged with murdering four Serb civilians in the village of Krusev Dol, near Srebrenica, last May. They denied the charges.

Hasic said he would not accept the verdict and 20-year sentence ``because I killed no one.″ His court-appointed lawyer said he would appeal to a higher court on Bosnian Serb territory.

U.N. and international officials criticized the trial.

Alexander Ivanko, spokesman for U.N. police who observed the trial, said in Sarajevo that international officials were ``deeply disappointed.″ He termed it ``a travesty of justice and a kangaroo court.″

``At no time did anybody in the room, including the prosecution, establish a sustained link between the different elements presented,″ he said.

The court also sentenced four other Muslims to one year in jail each for illegal weapons possession. They will be released May 10 after having spent a year in prison.

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