Call for Serbs to face war crimes trial

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The Independent Online
A LEADING human rights organisation yesterday called for Bosnian Serb leaders to be put on trial for war crimes. The New York-based Helsinki Watch said the UN should set up a war crimes tribunal 'at the highest level'.

The call came as the US accused Serbian forces of moving prisoners between camps in Bosnia to make the situation look better before visits by journalists and international monitors. John Bolton, US Under-Secretary of State for International Affairs, told a press conference in Geneva that Washington had 'independent information' about Serbian efforts to counter reports of widespread mistreatment of thousands of Muslim and Croat detainees.

'We want access to all of these supposed camps immediately and without impediment before these transfers of prisoners become more widespread,' said Mr Bolton, who was in Geneva for a special session tomorrow of the UN Human Rights Commission to discuss abuses in the former Yugoslavia.

Earlier yesterday the International Committee of the Red Cross said one of its teams was in the process of inspecting one Serbian-held camp in northern Bosnia that had previously been kept closed to international inspectors. The camp at Trno Polje, near Banja Luka in northern Bosnia, was the eleventh to be visited by the ICRC, but the first since the ICRC obtained a promise from the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, five days ago that all the Serbian-controlled camps would be opened up.

Helsinki Watch said a tribunal should 'investigate, prosecute, adjudicate and punish' at least nine alleged Serbian perpetrators of war crimes or grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, including Slobodan Milosevic the President of Serbia, and Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian leader in Bosnia.

The call for a tribunal is expected to fall on deaf ears because of reluctance to try suspected war criminals in absentia and the refusal thus far by the international community to use force to prevent war crimes in Bosnia.

Helsinki Watch also presented a report entitled War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina to the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, saying there was 'prima facie evidence that genocide is taking place' against the Muslim and Croat populations. It also called for the investigation, prosecution and punishment of Croatian forces that it believes murdered 23 Serbs in Gospic last year. The report, written after two separate missions to Bosnia this year, including visits to Serbian-run detention camps in August, states that 'a policy of 'ethnic cleansing' has resulted in the summary execution, disappearance, arbitrary detention, deportation and forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of people on the basis of their religion or nationality'.

Other Serbian leaders singled out for investigation by the proposed tribunal include Blagoje Adzic, the former Yugoslav defence minister; Dragoslav Bokan and Mirko Jovic, both Serbian paramilitary leaders; Ratko Mladic, a Yugoslav general; General Zivota Panic, the acting Minister of Defence of Yugoslavia and Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav army; Zeljko 'Arkan' Raznjatovic and Vojislav Seselj, Serbian paramilitary leaders.

The Serbian side, and to a far lesser extent the Muslims and Croats, are accused of violating the rules of war as codified in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the two additional 1977 protocols, as well as the Genocide Convention.

Among the many crimes the Serbs are accused of is taking civilian hostages to exchange for captured combatants and denying medical care to wounded prisoners of war and civilians, including journalists. Serbian forces have used prisoners as 'human shields', the report states, and have used hospitals as military headquarters and weapons depots. They are also accused of indiscriminately shelling and bombing Bosnian cities, towns and villages and using disproportionate and indiscriminate force 'to terrorise the civilian population'.

The 158-page report, which is the most comprehensive so far and the first to accuse the Serbs of genocide, castigates the UN and the European Community for being more concerned with negotiating ceasefires (all of which have been broken) than with ending, and punishing those responsible for, war crimes in Bosnia. It accuses the UN of withholding information about Serbian camps, and says it was 'a serious mistake' to blame both sides for the thousands of civilian deaths in the country. 'Blaming all parties for violations has been used by the international community as an excuse to do nothing to stop the gross violations of humanitarian law committed in Bosnia.'

(Photograph omitted)