Bosnian Serbs jailed for roles at 'hellish' camp

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The Independent Online

Five Bosnian Serbs were sentenced to up to 25 years in jail yesterday for their role in running an infamous prison camp where Muslims were held.

The camp at Omarska, near Prijedor in north-west Bosnia, came to be seen as a symbol of the depths to which the Balkan conflict of 1992 to 1995 descended. It became particularly notorious after images of skeletally thin prisoners standing behind its barbed wire fences were aired on British television screens in August 1992.

The camp's commanders – Dragoljub Prcac, Milojica Kos, Miroslav Kvocka, Mladjo Radic and Zoran Zigic – were sentenced at the United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague to five, six, seven, 20 and 25 years respectively.

Judge Almiro Rodrigues said the men had all known about or taken part in acts of rape, murder and persecution at the camp. "You participated in a hellish orgy of persecution," he said. Susan Somers, the chief prosecutor, said they "had not shown one shred of mercy to the victims".

About 6,000 Muslims and Croats passed through the camp over the course of five months in 1992, most of them men. Hundreds were murdered. Many of the women prisoners were raped repeatedly, the prosecution claimed.

So far, four mass graves containing bodies from Omarska and the neighbouring camp at Keraterm have been discovered in Kevljani, Donji Dubovik, Hrastova Glavica and Pasunac. Kevljani alone has already yielded more than 70 bodies, although pathologists believe it may contain more than 140.

Zigic's heavy sentence reflected the fact that he alone of the five was convicted of playing a key role in the neighbouring camp at Keraterm, where equal or worse atrocities took place. Prisoners there came to dread a summons by Zigic or his henchmen to "go to Room 3", from which no one emerged alive.

The bodies were taken away on a yellow dumper truck, which plied the routes between the camps and the mass graves almost daily.

In one massacre on 24 July 1992, between 120 and 160 detainees were herded into Room 3 and slaughtered with a machine-gun that had been set up on a table.

Detainees in nearby cells heard a burst of machine-gun fire followed by a series of single shots. Others sent to clean up the room said the entrance was blocked with dozens of bodies. One witness said that he saw Zigic help to park the dumper truck beside the bodies.

The Bosnian Serb leadership under Radovan Karadzic set up the camps at Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje as a clearing centre for non-Serbs in north-west Bosnia who failed to escape the Serbs' offensive across the region in spring 1992.

Mr Karadzic allowed Western television cameras into the camps in 1992 – a bad mistake that he soon regretted. The international outcry that followed the exposure of conditions at Omarska and Keraterm led the Bosnian Serbs to become more careful about permitting outside access to their "detention" centres. Mr Karadzic was so embarrassed he ordered the camps to be closed soon afterwards.

The relatively low sentences the court handed down to four of the defendants will disappoint many Bosnian Muslims. The prosecution had called for a minimum of 25 years for each of them. The rulings contrast strongly with the 46-year sentence given to a Bosnian Serb general, Radislav Krstic, for his role in the killings of Muslims in central Bosnia.