Serbs jailed for using rape as 'weapon of terror'

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Three Bosnian Serbs became the first men to be convicted of using mass rape and enslavement as a weapon of terror, as they were found guilty yesterday of torturing and assaulting girls as young as 12.

Three Bosnian Serbs became the first men to be convicted of using mass rape and enslavement as a weapon of terror, as they were found guilty yesterday of torturing and assaulting girls as young as 12.

The ruling in the The Hague came at the end of one of the most harrowing cases to be heard by the war crimes tribunal, the first in which sexual abuse was prosecuted as a crime against humanity.

Giving her judgment, Judge Florence Mumba said the Bosnian Serb army used rape as "an instrument of terror" during the war in 1992. The evidence showed "mothers and daughters together, robbed of the last vestiges of human dignity, women and girls treated like chattels", she added.

The judge found all three men guilty of multiple counts of crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and customs of war. They had, she added, "thrived in the dark atmosphere of dehumanisation of those believed to be enemies". The prosecution detailed a catalogue of crimes including the gang rape by at least 15 soldiers of a 15-year-old, and the enslavement of a 12-year-old whose distraught mother gave testimony to the court. The girl was forced to dance naked, raped and subsequently sold. She has not been seen since.

Dragoljub Kunarac, commander of a special reconnaissance unit of the Bosnian Serb army, was sentenced to 28 years, while Radomir Kovac, one of the sub-commanders of the paramilitary police, was given 20 years. The third defendant, Zoran Vukovic, another sub-commander of the military police and a former waiter, will serve 12 years in jail; he was acquitted on several counts due to lack of evidence.

The defendants, who had filed into the court room and exchanged pleasantries with their lawyers, were led away in a more subdued mood.

During the trial, which began last March, 16 witnesses gave evidence just yards from the perpetrators but from behind a screen and with their voiced scrambled to protect identities. Many women suffered psychological and physical harm, at least one can no longer have children and some remain traumatised.

The three men were key figures in a vicious series of events that followed the capture of the town of Foca, south-east of Sarajevo, in April 1992.

Muslim men were held in the local prison, but women were taken to a school, a sports hall, hotels and a number of private houses where they were beaten, abused and often gang raped. The physical conditions in detention centres, such as the Partizan sports hall, were inhumane, with overcrowding, unhygienic conditions and starvation. But that was only a beginning of the ordeal of systematic rape and violence.

The length of the sentences delivered yesterday reflected the sheer brutality of the attacks. Victims were often threatened and taunted, told they would become pregnant with Serb babies and that their babies would be taken to the Orthodox church to be baptised.

According to the indictment, one 15-year-old was raped by at least 15 soldiers who "sexually-abused her in all possible ways". It also details the ordeal of another girl who was raped and forced to perform oral sex by at least eight soldiers, one of whom bit her nipples a number of times. The indictment added: "Although the witness was bleeding from these bites, the seventh man squeezed and pinched her breasts as he raped her. FWS-48 [the victim] fainted as a result of the pain."

Kunarac not only abused women personally but organised their transfer to the "rape camps". In mid-July 1992 he was one of three men who raped one woman, whom he taunted by saying that she would never know the identity of the father of her Serb baby.

Giving evidence, one witness recalled: "I remember he was very forceful. He wanted to hurt me. But he could never hurt me as much as my soul was hurting me." The judge said the participation of a military commander in this "nightmarish scheme" made it "even more repugnant".

By day, girls held at the Brena apartment were enslaved and forced to perform household chores such as washing soldiers' uniforms. By night they were subjected to systematic sexual abuse. One of those was a 12-year-old who was raped repeatedly over a period of several weeks and who, on one evening, was among a group that was forced to strip and dance naked on a table. She was later sold by Kovac to another soldier for 200 German marks and, eight years on, remains missing.

In sentencing Kovac, Judge Mumba said his treatment of the girl illustrated his "morally depraved and corrupt character". His captive was, the judge added, "a helpless little child for whom you showed absolutely no compassion whatsoever, but whom you abused sexually. You finally sold her like an object in the knowledge that this would almost certainly mean further sexual assaults by other men".

The judge also noted how Vukovic had raped a girl of 15 - the same age as his own daughter - after threatening to kill her mother unless she revealed the victim's hiding place.

The defence did not deny the occurrence of widespread rapes in Foca but argued that the women who testified had been willing partners.

The powerlessness of the enslaved women was underlined by the existence of one quasi-brothel in which conditions were relatively good and to which the girls had a key: surrounded by Serb troops, there was nowhere to go.

During evidence one of the victims, when asked if she resisted, replied: "It was impossible. He had a pistol and he threatened me. Even if I risked my own life there, I was afraid for my family." After the verdict Dirk Ryneveld, the lead prosecutor in the case, said justice had been done and commended "the bravery of the victims who came forward to tell their stories".

But even after yesterday's judgment many of the perpetrators have never faced justice. The indictment is littered with references to rapes committed by "unidentified" soldiers who have melted away, and not all of those charged were brought to The Hague. Of the eight men originally accused in the Foca rape trial, one was killed when troops tried to arrest him and another blew himself up with a hand grenade. Three others remain at large.

Meanwhile, outside the court in The Hague yesterday protesters held out banners reading: "Punishment for the big fish - Where are they?"