Serbs on trial in '95 killings of 6 Muslims

December 21, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro -- Five members of a Serbian paramilitary unit went on trial here yesterday on charges of killing six unarmed Muslim prisoners who were caught fleeing the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.

The killings were captured on videotape by a unit member and were made public last summer, shocking Serbs who had long denied that such crimes occurred during the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia.

The trial is being conducted by a recently established Serbian war crimes court. Designated courts in Serbia-Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina handle all new allegations of war crimes committed during the 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia broke apart.

The International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in the Netherlands, is trying former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It has completed the indictment stage of its work and is limited to prosecuting cases it has begun.

The case in Belgrade is the second major one to be tried by Serbia's war crimes court and is the most closely watched because of the publicity surrounding the video, which was widely aired in June. The proceedings were the main story on Serbian radio and television news programs yesterday.

Although the shootings can be seen clearly on the video, the unit's commander, Slobodan Medic, 39, denied that his forces killed the Muslims. He said prisoners were never shot because his unit "had never caught any prisoners."

Medic told the court that the cameraman who shot the video "would not be eating bread anymore" because he would have "killed him like a rabbit" if he had known the taping was occurring.

"I did my job properly. If I had not, I wouldn't be alive today. I only fulfilled my national obligations," Medic said.

Pleas are not required in the Serbian court system, and none of the defendants entered one.

As the trial began, about 20 Bosnian Muslim women wearing headscarves, many of them relatives of the men and boys who were killed, walked across one of Belgrade's main avenues to enter the courthouse as witnesses. At the same time, police vans pulled up carrying the indicted members of the Scorpion unit, most wearing black leather jackets.

Nura Alphasic, a Bosnian Muslim who recognized her son on the video when it was broadcast over the summer, wept as she testified, saying, "People who could kill my child like that should get a hundred years."

She said she was not afraid to come to Belgrade to testify even though she knows that some Serbs, most of whom are Orthodox Christians, harbor deep animosity toward Muslims.

"They can kill me, but there is nothing more that I can lose," she said. "All I want is to face these criminals ... to face the people who could kill a child like that."

A spokesman for the prosecutor told Serbian state television last night that the prosecutor would not rely on the video but would call at least "12 witnesses and present extensive additional evidence."

Human rights activists have given the court high marks for fairness and speed, although they caution that it has yet to face the tough test of indicting and trying people high in the chain of command, some of whom hold powerful positions in the Serbian police or army.

In a case completed two weeks ago that dealt with the killing of 200 Croatian civilians at a hospital near Vukovar, the judge "cared about the evidence, the law and nothing more," said Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Center and a well-known human rights activist in Serbia.

In that case, 14 of 16 Serbs accused of the crimes were sentenced to prison terms. Eight received the maximum 20-year sentence for war crimes. There is no death penalty in Serbia.

The fall of Srebrenica, which peacekeeping forces had declared a haven for Muslims expelled from surrounding villages, was the biggest atrocity of the Bosnian war, resulting in the death of more than 7,000 men and boys at the hands of Bosnian Serbs.

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