War Crimes Court Imposes First Sentence
By Charles Trueheart
Seventeen months after he helped execute more than 1,000 Muslim civilians in Bosnia, a Croat foot soldier today received the first sentence handed down by the international tribunal established by the United Nations to prosecute Balkan war crimes.
For his crimes, Drazen Erdemovic, 25, will serve 10 years, less the brief time he has been in detention in The Hague, where the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is headquartered. Because he confessed, he did not require a formal trial.
The sentence, the first to be handed down by an international tribunal for a crime against humanity since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II, is the first step in a judicial process that has achieved little of what it was set up to do in 1993: prosecute hundreds of war criminals -- Serb, Croat and Muslim -- said to be responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands in Bosnia and Croatia from 1991 to 1995.
The war crimes tribunal's notable failures to date are put in sharp relief by the small milestone of the Erdemovic sentencing.
There have been 74 people indicted, overwhelmingly Bosnian Serb officers. But only seven of the accused, all minor players, are in custody, and only one of them is a Serb. Erdemovic's confession aside, only one trial has taken place; Dusan Tadic, a Bosnian Serb who pleaded not guilty to having participated in 16 killings, is awaiting the tribunal's first verdict.
The reason for the negligible number arrested is no mystery. Serb and Western authorities responsible for detaining those indicted as architects of most of the genocide -- Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, his military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, and their senior commanders -- have declined to do so.
The unstated decision by the U.S. and other Western governments to leave the chief suspects at large follows from the more pressing business charted by last year's Dayton peace accord for Bosnia: ending the fighting and carrying out elections there. Arresting Karadzic or Mladic could trigger renewed violence and derail the accord, officials have said.
Erdemovic, a Bosnian Croat, was a barroom bully, small-time smuggler and soldier of fortune when he drifted from the Muslim-dominated Bosnian army into the ranks of their enemies, the Bosnian Serbs, in 1995 -- in search, he testified, of better rations and better pay.
When the Serbs encircled Srebrenica, a U.N.-declared "safe area" inhabited mostly by Muslims, in July 1995, Erdemovic said he was ordered to a farmyard in nearby Pilica and told to line 70 civilians, including old men and boys, against a wall, where he killed them with his AK-47 rifle.
"To be frank, I'd rather not know how many people I killed," Erdemovic testified in The Hague. His commander told him if he felt any sympathy for his victims, he should line up with them. "I was simply forced to choose between my life and the life of those people," he said.
Prosecutors and tribunal officials said today that the 10-year sentence for Erdemovic -- the maximum the prosecutors had requested -- was designed to send a warning and an invitation to other suspects.
First, they said, harsh penalties must be attached to war crimes like the ones Erdemovic committed. In the decision announced today by Presiding Judge Claude Jorda in The Hague, the tribunal rejected the hauntingly familiar excuse of Nazi war criminals -- that Erdemovic was following orders and was forced to kill against his will.
But Erdemovic's penalty, tribunal officials said, was mitigated by his remorse, his age (he was 23 at the time of the killings), his willing surrender to the tribunal's custody and his significant cooperation with the prosecution, including information about the Bosnian Serb chain of command and about four incidents previously unknown to prosecutors.
And that, officials said, was a signal to other indicted figures and suspected war criminals that they can expect their treatment to be affected by their behavior.
"The sentence shouldn't look like revenge," said Emma Bonino, the European Union's top humanitarian official. "The most important deterrent to future war crimes is not the toughness of the sentence but the certainty of the punishment."
Erdemovic's wife, Vesna, told Newsweek magazine two months ago that her husband's contract with the Bosnian Serb army, signed by Mladic, stipulated that he kill his parents if asked to do so.
The maximum penalty the tribunal can level is life imprisonment. Erdemovic probably will serve his sentence in a jail in Norway, Finland or Italy. His lawyer said he would appeal the sentence.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company