Two high-ranking military enforcers of ethnic cleansing for the wartime Bosnian Serb leadership were yesterday convicted of genocide for the 1995 murders of almost 8,000 men and boys after their troops overran the safe enclave of Srebrenica.
The men were jailed for life, the most severe sentences ever handed down by the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for a massacre considered the worst act of violence in Europe since the Second World War.
Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara were key lieutenants of the fugitive head of the Bosnian Serb army, General Ratko Mladic and are the only people with convictions for genocide for atrocities committed during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.
During an orgy of violence, soldiers drove more than 25,000 Bosnians from their homes and thousands were executed as Dutch peacekeepers failed to stop the killings in one of the UN's most shameful episodes. After being held in detention centres and halls, many of the men were taken to execution sites and gunned down. Others were massacred on the spot.
The judges ruled that Popovic, a lieutenant colonel, organised and watched the execution of prisoners at a school. "(He) knew that the intent was not just to kill those who had fallen into the hands of Bosnian Serb forces, but to kill as many as possible," the judgment said. Beara, a colonel, co-ordinated the murder of Muslim prisoners and organised their mass burials, the judgment said. Beara had a "very personal view of the staggering number of victims destined for execution", it said. He "was intent on destroying a group by killing all the members of it within his reach".
Five other Bosnian Serb officials were jailed for five to 35 years for their part in the Srebrenica massacre, which happened a few months before the war ended with the Dayton Peace Accords. As the judges delivered their ruling, some of the men shook their heads in disbelief.
The Hague-based trial of the seven, which began in July 2006, was one of the longest in the tribunal's history, with 315 witnesses taking the stand.
The verdict could indirectly affect the trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, which began last year following his capture in Belgrade in 2008. Karadzic, a key figure throughout the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, is also accused of genocide for the Srebrenica slaughter.
Judges yesterday wrote that the defendants' most brutal crimes were carried out under a directive issued by Karadzic to create "an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival" for the Srebrenica population.
Another former Bosnian Serb soldier, Gen Radislav Kristic, was convicted of genocide in 2001 but the judgement was overturned on appeal and reduced to aiding and abetting genocide at Srebrenica.
Mass graves with bodies of Muslim men and boys killed in Srebrenica are still being discovered in the hills around the tiny town in Eastern Bosnia. The mass eviction of the Muslim population from Srebrenica and the massacre of men and boys profoundly changed the ethnic composition of the region, which has been almost exclusively populated by Bosnian Serbs since 1995.
There have been only a few returnees among the pre-war Muslim families. Former Srebrenica residents go there in large numbers only on 11 July every year, to mark the anniversary of the town's fall.
Hajra Catic, from the Association of Mothers of Srebrenica, who makes the journey told The Independent that she was satisfied with genocide judgement and life sentences for the two men, but "insulted" that the others received lesser terms. Kada Hotic from the same group, said the trial was important because it confirmed that the Bosnian Serb army "did commit genocide in Srebrenica and systematically and intentionally execute men and boys".
A prominent Serbian humanitarian law activist, Natasa Kandic, said it revealed important details of the massacre: "It will bear influence on trials that are ahead and shed light on possible participation of Serbia proper in the Srebrenica genocide."
Genocide in Potocari
March 1995 President Radovan Karadzic sets out the plan for an attack on UN safe havens in Supreme Command Directive 7.
6 July The Bosnian Serb army starts several days of shelling on the Srebrenica enclave.
10 July Thousands of Bosnian Muslims flee Srebrenica. Many head to the Dutch peacekeepers compound in Potocari. Thousands of Bosnian Muslim men set off in a column towards Tuzla.
11 July The enclave falls to Bosnian Serb forces.
12 July The Bosnian Serb army sends 50 buses to Potocari where they separate the men from the rest of the group. Over two days, Bosnian Serb forces capture members of the column.
13 July By evening some 20,000 to 30,000 Bosnian Muslims are taken away as the murder operation begins in earnest. After one member of the Bosnian Serb forces is killed in a brief uprising inside a warehouse, soldiers massacre at least 1,000 men.
14-15 July Excavators arrive to remove the bodies of the victims of the warehouse massacre.
16-17 July A number of Bosnian Muslim men heading to Tuzla break through Bosnian Serb lines and escape.
17 July Murders and mopping up operation goes on for 10 days.
September/October The army carries out a major operation to conceal evidence of the killings.