Former Serb militiamen guilty of war crimes

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The Independent Online

A group of 14 former Serb militiamen was found guilty of war crimes by a Belgrade court yesterday and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for the execution of 200 Croats in one the worst massacres of prisoners of war during the Balkan wars.

The landmark trial, regarded as a crucial test of the ability of Serbia's judiciary to deal with cases of war crimes committed during the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia, came to an end as Croatian war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina pleaded not guilty to seven counts of murder, persecution and expulsion of Serbs during the critical final months of the Croatian war in 1995.

In the first sentence delivered by the special war crimes court in Belgrade for war crimes committed by Serbs during Croatia’s war of independence, prison terms ranging from 5 to 20 years were handed down to those found guilty of carrying out the bloody massacre at Ovcara farm, near the town of Vukovar, in November 1991.

"Justice is done," said the spokesman for Serbia's war crimes prosecution, Bruno Vekaric. "The trial, which satisfied world legal standards, shows that the Serbian judiciary can tackle high-risk cases."

Eight of the defendants were given the maximum 20 years, while the rest were handed sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years. The only woman in the group, Nada Kalaba, was told she would spend nine years in prison. Two of the 16 people originally indicted were acquitted.

"Without any doubt, the accused are guilty of breaching all the Geneva Conventions related to prisoners of war," said Judge Vesko Krstajic as he described how more than 200 people were taken from the Vukovar hospital and gunned down in Ovcara when the army of the former Yugoslavia and groups of Serb ‘volunteers’ overran the baroque town at the start of Croatia’s war for independence.

Groups of prisoners were brought to shallow graves and shot by firing squads, he said, before others who were brought to the farm later were forced to throw the bodies of the dead into the graves and then be shot themselves.

As the trial in Belgrade was coming to an end, the first steps were taken yesterday towards the prosecution of the Croat General Ante Gotovina, arrested on Friday at a beachside hotel in Tenerife. Listening intently to the lengthy list of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including the killing of 150 Serbs during fighting to retake the Krajina region read out by Judge Carmel Agius, Gen Gotovina replied "your honour, not guilty" to each charge.

"He is totally focused on his defence," said General Gotovina's Croatian-American lawyer Luka Nisetic, quoting General Gotovina as telling him: "I am not the man described in each and every count."