Judgment for War Crimes in Zvornik Municipality Failed to Bring Justice for Victims or the Accused
After five years of trial, the Belgrade Higher Court War Crimes Department trial chamber, presided over by Judge Tatjana Vuković, rendered a judgment on November 22, 2010 which upset human rights defenders and deeply affected and offended families of victims.
Six years is an unacceptable punishment for the accused Branko Grujić, who was tried in his capacity of former Mayor of the Zvornik municipality provisional government, Commander of the crisis headquarters, and a member of the war headquarters and the war secretariat of the Zvornik municipality at the time of the crimes. Additionally, fifteen years is an inappropriate punishment for Branko Popović, who was tried in his capacity of Commander of the Territorial Defense Unit, a member of the war headquarters of the municipality, and Commander of the Joint Military and Territorial Command of the Zvornik municipality. Further, in considering the health condition, family situation, and age of the accused, the court expressed injustice, bringing humiliation to survivors and families of victims.
The trial chamber found the accused Branko Grujić and Branko Popović guilty of committing the criminal acts of taking hostages and treating them inhumanely, committed on two occasions – first on May 27, 1992 with 174 Muslims from the village of Divič, then on June 1, 1992 with approximately 700 Muslims from villages of Đulići, Klis, and other villages in the municipality of Zvornik and with 1,649 Muslims from the village of Kozluk who were forcibly relocated. The trial chamber additionally found the accused Popović guilty of additional crimes, including: the inhumane treatment of civilians detained in the misdemeanor court detention facility and in “Novi Izvor”; for aiding in the murder of Abdulah Buljubašić, aka Bubica, in the misdemeanor court; for aiding in the killing of at least 27 civilians and the infliction of physical injuries on dozens of more civilians detained in the Čelopek Cultural Center; and, for aiding in the killing of at least 100 civilians and the additional physical torture of other detainees held in the Technical High School (THS) in Karakaj. All of these crimes were committed in the period from June 1 – 5, 1992. Popović was acquitted of responsibility for the killing of over 200 civilians in “Gero’s Butchery” on June 8, 1992. The judge explained that the court was not able to determine whether or not the accused was aware of the consequences that his actions would bring. Unlike the war crimes prosecutor, who charged the accused Popović with the killing of approximately 700 hostages, the court declared Popović accountable for aiding in the killing of 352 Muslim civilians, whose identity had been determined by DNA testing conducted before the first instance judgment was rendered.
In the initial indictment dated October 22nd, 2008, the prosecutor stated that during a session of the provisional government the accused Grujić asked “are they getting food?” (referring to the men detained in THS), and that the answer was “they have been taken off the food.” In the specified indictment this information is not mentioned, however the court revived the issue in the reasoning of its judgment when it mentions witness Stevan Ivanović, who confirmed that during the session of the provisional government presided by Grujić there was some talk regarding people detained in the school and that it was decided that these people would be exchanged.
It became clear at the very end of the trial that procedures would be taking a different course when Deputy War Crimes Prosecutor Milan Petrović specified the indictment raised November 8, 2010, thus reducing the accountability of the accused Branko Grujić to only the acts of the imprisonment of 174 Muslims from Divič, the forcible relocation of Muslims from Kozluk, and the imprisonment of approximately 700 Muslims from Đulići and other villages who took refuge in the village of Klis. Acting upon this revised indictment with removed responsibility for those imprisoned at THS, the trial chamber released the accused Branko Grujić from detention on November 9, 2010.
It is clear that the findings of court expert Dr. Mile Stojković, namely, that “the accused Grujić could not order the use of units (ie, Territorial Defense police),” served as reasoning for the prosecutor to significantly revise the indictment in relation to the accused Grujić. Judging by the sentence that was delivered, the court went even further in minimizing the accountability of the accused, Grujić. However, it is strange that in the reasoning of the judgment the court also used facts that undoubtedly point to the accused Grujić’s personal responsibility and command responsibility, both of which exceed the limits of the maximum jail sentence of 20 years. In its judgment, the court refers to witnesses who do not distinguish between the accountability of the accused Grujić and Popović: witness Milorad Davidović claimed that it is “impossible for the President of the government not to know what is happening in his house”; witness M stated that the entire towns of Karakaj and Zvornik talked about people being detained in the school; witness Petar Panić said that there was a rumor about executions, that bodies were taken to the butcher’s shop, and that citizens had called and said there were corpses in the butcher’s shop, etc. The court goes on, pointing to the fact that it was no coincidence that the accused Grujić appeared in all meetings and at all times as the Commander of the Territorial Defense and the police, and that the accused Grujić, only two days after citizens of Divič were detained, visited Muslims detained at the THS, where he saw the inhumane conditions these detainees were in. Further, the court points out that this treatment was indeed a topic at the Territorial Defense HQ meeting on June 1, 1992, thus concluding that the accused Grujić had consciously failed to take the necessary measures to humanely respect the detainees, and that both accused had agreed to the prohibited consequences arising from this (the suffocation of at least 20 detainees in the THS), showing that there is an indissoluble link between the positions of both of the two accused, Grujić and Popović.
The drastically amended indictment revives the question of: how was it possible that Branko Grujić, the former Mayor of Zvornik and a citizen of BiH, was being tried in Serbia? At the time of his arrest, circles close to the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor spread the rumor that a deal was made with Grujić and that he would surrender to the court in Serbia so that he could avoid being tried before the state court in BiH.
It is, of course, impossible to include hundreds of responsible individuals from the Serb side (commanders, executors, inciters, aiders, the those who concealed crimes, etc.) in a single indictment, as this is the number of persons that must have been involved in the commission of war crimes in the Zvornik municipality. The Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor in Serbia, if they took their work more seriously, should have at least accused those leaders of palamilitary groups from Serbia, who reside in Serbia today and who are available to court, and who also were examined as witnesses in this proceeding. These individuals revealed, as witnesses before the court, only the facts that they were unable to conceal. From this information, the court could have easily establishd the facts about these individuals’ accountability if they had chosen to do so and if they had requested that these individuals present their defense.
It remains unclear how it was possible, considering the seriousness of the criminal acts, the great number of victims of the crimes, and the very significant roles that the accused held in both civilian and military authorities in the municipality of Zvornik, that the accused Grujić was sentenced to a jail sentence only on the border of the legal minimum and that the accused Popović was sentenced to a jail sentence far below the legal maximum. The presiding judge failed to provide adequate reason for the sentencing of the punishments which were delivered. She even stated the age of the accused as a mitigating circumstance considered during sentencing, which is an entirely inappropriate fact. The accused committed these crime when they were middle-aged, and the fact that they are now being brought to trial only 20 years later only represents the shame of the Republic of Serbia judiciary.
Lack of Compassion for Victims’ Families
During the reasoning of the judgment that was rendered the presiding judge exclusively addressd the accused. She failed to offer a sigle word of compassion to the families of the killed who attended the session in which the judgment was delivered. Victims’ family members, who attended this trial at the organization of the Humanitarian Law Center from the very beginning, found that the reading of the names of only the 352 victims who had been forensically identified to date, instead of the reading of the names of all the killed and missing from the time covered by the indictment, including those whose bodies have not yet been found or identified (approximately 800 in total), considerably diminished the crimes that the accused are accountable for and felt that it was a manipulation of the number of victims from these crimes.
The Value of Documentation and Established Facts
During the five-year-long trial, the court gathered some significant documents, established numerous facts, and clearly specified witnesses who should be indicted in the future. Rich court files offer material for the initiation of new criminal proceedings before the Belgrade High Court War Crimes Department and the state court of BiH. Even though the court did not engage in investigating why the accused Branko Popović, a citizen of Serbia, was in the municipality of Zvornik, in their reasoning of the judgment, the presiding judge did present facts which undoubtedly point to confirmation that Serbia was involved in the preparation of the war and the organization of paramilitary formations for the commission of war crimes in the municipality of Zvornik. The presiding judge stated that the accused Branko Popović was sent from the Republic of Serbia’s State Security Agency and that his engagement for the liberation of Legija before the beginning of the conflict, in early April 1992, was not accidental while also pointing out the accused’s close relationship with Arkan, his close links with commanders of the former JNA, and the fact that the Serbian Ministry of Interior was involved in the negotiation of the expulsion of Muslims from Kozluk.