News 18 Dec 15

Serbian Security Chiefs Plead Not Guilty at Retrial

Former Serbian state security officers Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic pleaded not guilty at the UN court in The Hague at their retrial for war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia.

Marija Ristic, Denis Dzidic
Belgrade, Sarajevo
Stanisic and Simatovic. Photo: BETA/AP

The retrial of Stanisic and Simatovic opened on Friday with both men pleading not guilty after the appeals chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY overturned their previous acquittal earlier this week.

The UN court on Tuesday ruled that there were serious legal and factual errors when Stanisic and Simatovic were acquitted of war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013.

It ordered the case to retried and all the evidence and witnesses to be reheard in full by new judges. The two men were remanded in custody.

The case is now being handled by the UN Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, MICT, which is taking over the ICTY’s remaining cases as it prepares to close in 2017.

Stanisic, the former chief of the Serbian State Security Service, and Simatovic, a former Serbian State Security Service official, are accused of being part of a joint criminal enterprise aimed at forcibly and permanently removing non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1991 to 1995.

According to the indictment, they were the key men in charge of secret armed units which were not legally authorised by the Serbian authorities to undertake special military operations.

During their existence from 1991 until 2003, these units had various names – the Knindze (‘Ninjas’ from the town of Knin), the Scorpions, Arkan’s Tigers, the Red Berets and the Special Operations Unit – and were known for their brutal fighting methods.

The Hague Tribunal judges ruled in 2013 that the units committed the crimes that were listed in the indictment, but said that Stanisic and Simatovic could not be held criminally responsible for them.

“In the instances when the two accused rendered assistance to the special units, this assistance was not specifically directed towards the commission of crimes,” the verdict said.

The 2013 verdict also said that the prosecutor had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Stanisic or Simatovic planned or ordered the units’ crimes.

However the appeals chamber ruled that the initial verdict was incorrect in insisting that the men could only be guilty if they ‘specifically directed’ the crimes.

This means that if they contributed to the crime bring committed but were not actually present at the crime scene, they needed to have given a precise order for it to be committed if they were to be convicted of aiding and abetting it.

The lack of proof of ‘specific direction’ was a key issue in other high-profile verdicts at the ICTY - in the acquittals of former Yugoslav Army chief Momcilo Perisic and of two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac.

Although victims’ associations have said that the retrial could bring them long-delayed justice, legal experts warned that this week’s overturning of the two men’s acquittal has caused further confusion about the rulings of the ICTY.

Miodrag Stojanovic, a defence lawyer in several cases at the Hague court, says the verdict proves the ICTY’s inconsistency.

“Different chambers have different approaches, and all of us who work on these cases are confused because we don’t know what the legal standards of the Tribunal are,” Stojanovic said.

“To make this problem even bigger, the chambers themselves are split [on which standards to apply]… As the Tribunal is closing, we have entered an even bigger confusion about very complex legal issues,” he added.

Ivan Jovanovic, a Belgrade-based legal expert, agreed that the Stanisic and Simatovic appeal verdict highlighted the inconsistent application of legal standards at the ICTY.

“Appeals chambers with different judges bring in different decisions and apply different standards for the same issues, which also leads to unequal [treatment of] defendants. Now we can say Perisic was lucky as he was tried by one chamber, while Stanisic and Simatovic were not that lucky as different judges ruled in their case,” Jovanovic said.

According to Jovanovic, in cases before national courts, the judges in higher instances agree on the legal standards they are applying, while the judges in the ICTY don’t have that obligation.

During the first trial in the Stanisic and Simatovic case, some 133 witnesses were heard over four years.

It is expected that witnesses will start testifying in their retrial next year, but it remains unclear how long it will last.

“Jovica Stanisic is seriously ill and we have a decision from the trial chamber that he cannot sit in the courtroom longer than two hours a day. It means the trial will last in first instance alone for at least three years,” Stojanovic warned.

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