Croat general's jail term for atrocities cut

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The Independent Online

The war crimes tribunal at The Hague cut the sentence of a former Bosnian Croat commander yesterday, ruling that he had been unfairly punished for massacres committed by forces under his command during the Bosnian war.

The war crimes tribunal at The Hague cut the sentence of a former Bosnian Croat commander yesterday, ruling that he had been unfairly punished for massacres committed by forces under his command during the Bosnian war.

General Tihomir Blaskic had his prison sentence reduced from 45 years to just nine after the court acquitted him of more than a dozen charges of ethnic cleansing.

Judge Fausto Pocar of the Appeals Chamber declared that the lower court which tried Blaskic, 43, in 2000 had misinterpreted the law and unfairly blamed the commander for atrocities committed by his troops. The judgment means Blaskic, who has already served eight years in prison, could be freed immediately.

The ruling dealt a blow to prosecutors involved in other cases concerning some of the worst ethnic violence of the Balkan wars in the 1990s, in which two more Bosnian Croat commanders, Dario Kordic and Mario Cerkez, are contesting their charges.

Blaskic, who voluntarily surrendered to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in 1996, was originally sentenced to 45 years in prison after being found guilty of ordering an ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslim villages in central Bosnia that left hundreds dead and forced tens of thousands more to flee their homes.

Blaskic was found guilty of "command responsibility" and was convicted of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Convention. He received the harshest penalty the court had ever given.

But yesterday the conviction was overturned as the appeals judges cleared Blaskic of deliberately driving Muslims from their homes in the 1992-95 war, of responsibility for killing Muslim civilians and of deliberately ordering attacks on their homes.

"The Appeals Chamber finds that on the basis of the evidence relied upon by the Trial Chamber, no reasonable trier of fact could have come to the conclusion beyond reasonable doubt that the Appellant intended to effect forcible transfer of civilians," the court explained.

One of the most severe charges dropped against Blaskic was the 1993 massacre in the village of Ahmici, in which 100 residents were murdered by Croat soldiers in the course of a single day.

Blaskic's imprisonment had brought some comfort to the town's residents and the news of his acquittal has provoked outrage among them.

"I am shocked and bitter. This is a farce," said Hasrudin Bilic. "This means that the tribunal wants to tells us that no one is guilty for the people killed in the horrible massacre that happened here."

But the panel did find Blaskic guilty of lesser crimes of illegal detainment and inhumane treatment of prisoners.

It upheld three counts of serious breaches of the Geneva Convention related to the imprisonment of Muslims at camps in Bosnia.

Croatia, which is keen to co-operate with the UN war crimes tribunal in a bid to boost its chances of becoming a member of the European Union, welcomed the Appeals Chamber's judgment.

"The decision reflects comprehensive examination of all facts and pieces of evidence related to the case and will certainly be a historic contribution to establishing the truth about conflicts in central Bosnia," said a spokesman for Croatia's Justice Ministry.

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