Feature 20 Dec 17

War Crimes Convicts: Hague Tribunal was a ‘Political Court’

Convicted war criminals from Bosnia and Herzegovina say that they still believe that the Hague Tribunal, which closes down on Thursday, was a politically biased court that could never deliver impartial justice.

Denis Dzidic BIRN Sarajevo
 Momcilo Krajisnik in court in The Hague. Photo: ICTY.

Esad Landzo is one of the 90 people convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in its 24 years of existence, which come to end on Thursday when the court that was founded by the UN Security Council in 1993 finally closes its doors.

Landzo is also one of the few who has come to terms with his verdict, which sentenced him to 15 years for crimes against Serbs in Celebici, near Konjic, in 1992.

During his time in detention in The Hague, Landzo says he realised that he had to “wake up” to what he had done during the war.

“Personally, for me, the court did something it failed to achieve in many defendants, and that is show me the truth and what really happened. I believe it should have done this for every individual,” he said.

Still, like many Hague convicts, he believes the Tribunal is a “political court”.

“We all know that it is a political, manipulative tool. It was not created to show the truth,” Landzo told BIRN.

The ICTY is often viewed as a politically biased court by the region’s different ethnic groups. In Serbia and Republika Srpska, it’s believed that more Serbs have been found guilty and sentenced to far more years in prison than Bosniak, Croat and Kosovo officials.

In Croatia and the Croat-dominated parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the court was viewed favourably when it found Croatian general Ante Gotovina not guilty of war crimes - but last month’s verdict convicting the ‘Herzeg-Bosnia six’ was heavily criticised, with the court labelled as political and unfair for mentioning late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman as part of a joint criminal enterprise involved in the Bosnian war.

Bosniak war victims and politicians have been the most respectful towards the Tribunal, although they feel the court has not done enough, often criticising it for not finding that genocide took place in 1992 as well as in 1995, or for not clearly establishing Serbia’s role in the war.

Landzo’s view that the court was political is shared by former Bosnian Serb parliament speaker Momcilo Krajisnik, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for taking part in the persecution and deportation of non-Serb civilians from ten Bosnian municipalities, and former Croatian Defence Council fighter Vlatko Kupreskic, who was acquitted of committing crimes against Bosniaks.

Despite the fact all three men’s verdicts were different, and that they come from different ethnic groups and have different approaches to accepting the crimes in their indictments, they all maintain the view that the Tribunal was not fair and that it hindered post-war reconciliation.

The ‘proudest moment’ for justice?

Hague Tribunal president Carmel Agius. Photo: ICTY.

Delivering his final report to the UN Security Council, the Tribunal’s president, Carmel Agius said the ICTY was one of the international community’s “proudest moments”.

Agius said the Tribunal had fulfilled the prophecy of the ICTY’s first president, Antonio Cassese, in becoming a “turning point for the world community”.

This is not a view shared by the three former defendants who spoke to BIRN.

Krajisnik claims that although by the Tribunal perhaps had a “true intention” to prosecute crimes and achieve reconciliation, such efforts failed spectacularly.

“I think the trials have been selective and political and only served to show that crimes were committed by one side and not three sides,” said Krajisnik, although he added that he does not believe that all three sides - Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs - committed the same amount of crimes during the Bosnian war.

Krajisnik’s allegations are echoed by Kupreskic, despite his not-guilty verdict.

Kupreskic also claimed that the Hague court is a “political institution which is not based on law or justice”. He cannot fathom why he spent half a decade in detention before his acquittal.

“They never even said sorry,” he said.

A positive legacy of the Tribunal, in Kupreskic’s view, is that it collected a lot of evidence and indicted some high-ranking officials, such as former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. However, even there, Kupreskic believes the Tribunal was selective.

“They did everything wrong to make the three peoples angry. They said Serbs will be the most prosecuted – which is not according to the law and justice – then the Croats and only then the Muslims. So Serbs got life sentences, Croats 20 and Muslims five or three years. It is a catastrophe,” he said.

Krajisnik has some mixed feelings about the Tribunal – on one hand, he says, it is difficult to believe that local courts would have ever prosecuted war crimes without the UN court, but on the other, he feels, international standards are nothing like local ones.

“Our local laws, we know who is guilty and who is not. That is simply stated and passed on from man to man,” he said.

“It is different in the Tribunal, and many [in Bosnia and Herzegovina] here cannot even understand what they have been convicted of, because by our standards, they are not even supposed to be guilty.”

Waking up to the past

 Esad Landzo. Photo: BIRN.

Esad Landzo is one of the few Hague defendants with a different experience; his trial helped to make him aware of wrongs he committed.

“It is important for those who committed crimes, like me, to - how to say it? - wake up,” said Landzo.

Through the help he was given by the Tribunal - psychological therapies, talking to professionals - Landzo says he was ‘reborn’ and found the strength to face his victims, his actions, and himself.

“Until I came to The Hague I did not believe what I did was wrong and the entire point of the Tribunal was for us perpetrators to come out better than we were,” he explained.

“However, many more have gone out denying everything, and then I wonder, where is the justice in that?” he added.

Krajisnik however believes the Tribunal misunderstood what happened on the ground during the war years, and blamed people for things they could not control during the chaos of conflict.

“They looked to the conflict from their comfortable chairs and thought we could have done something in the middle of the war, when we didn’t know who was doing what,” said Krajisnik.

It is time to forgive all crimes, he insisted - and time for the former Yugoslavia to “put an end to the past and get back to a normal life”.

But that does not mean that he admits his own guilt.

“I admit there is a verdict in which I am called a war criminal. I tried, I fought to prove I was innocent and I still believe the Tribunal made a mistake, and I will do everything to revise this verdict and prove I am not this man,” he said.

‘I believed in better results’

The Hague Tribunal judges in court for Ratko Mladic's verdict last month. Photo: ICTY.

Like the convicts, some of the survivors of wartime crimes are also unhappy with the Tribunal’s work.

Goran Krcmar, the director of the operational team for finding missing persons in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska region, called the court a “disappointment”.

“I believed in better results, in justice… that families would get justice… Listening to them, I see no one is happy,” said Krcmar.

Some, however, have found some solace in the verdicts, like Zuhdija Basic, who survived sexual abuse and torture in central Bosnia during the war.

“I think this is some justice, but we will never have true justice,” said Basic.

“Maybe people expected reconciliation, but that is too much to hope for. Everyone has their truth in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we can never have one truth,” he explained.

“Still, it is good, because many things have been uncovered and found out thanks to the Tribunal.”

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