Legal threat by UN 'may reduce atrocities'

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The Independent Online
Despite being handed a weak mandate to investigate and punish war criminals in the former Yugoslav federation, the new UN war crimes commission is being seen by governments and human rights groups as a breakthrough that could reduce the violence against civilians in Bosnia.

In a sign of how seriously the war crimes commission is being taken, Britain has offered the services of its most senior military legal expert on war crimes to the UN, as have a number of other countries. The commission will be modelled on the Allied War Crimes Commission established in 1943, which began by gathering evidence used in Nazi trials, including the prosecution of 22 Nazis in Nuremberg, 12 of whom were sentenced to death.

Few are willing to predict that those accused of being war criminals in the Balkans will ever be brought to justice, since there is little prospect of taking them into custody. But the fact that information on war crimes is being collected and sifted by the world's foremost experts is expected to deter further abuses.

Information on alleged war criminals has already begun streaming into UN headquarters in New York, even before the commission of experts has been appointed. The US human rights group, Helsinki Watch, was first off the mark last August with a 160-page volume naming nine individuals, including Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, for whom there is already sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation.

That report was followed by one from the US State Department of eyewitness accounts of murders, torture and other 'grave breaches' of the 1945 Geneva Conventions on humanitarian law. The US report, described boys and women being machine-gunned to death and refugees being 'liquidated'. And it quoted an American citizen fighting for the Croats who witnessed Serbian soldiers torturing prisoners to death.

A Serb described to US embassy officials in Budapest how 30 masked irregulars conducted house-to-house searches for Muslims in Zvornick and then allegedly cut off the heads, hands and feet of their victims. The irregulars were commanded by Zeljko Raznjatovic, who goes under the nom de guerre Arkan and is wanted by Interpol for crimes committed in western Europe. Arkan is one of those named by Helsinki Watch as a prime suspect in any war crimes investigation.

The most recent catalogue of first-hand accounts of murder and torture in Bosnia was handed to the Security Council by the Bosnian ambassador, Muhamed Sacirbey, on Thursday. He provided the UN with the testimony of 32 Bosnians.

One of the most poignant was from a Muslim, Fadahija Hasanovic, 34, who said he was interned in a Serbian prison in Karakaj from 1 to 10 June. The rooms were unventilated and at least 20 of the 700 prisoners detained there died from suffocation. All were beaten with fists and rifle butts, and when they collapsed, covered in blood, their bodies were taken away.

'Then my turn came. They forced us against the wall and started shooting immediately. Before that I took my cousin Sejdo by the hand. It was a miracle that I stayed alive. I pretended to be dead among the killed neighbours. When the Chetniks went to get a new group of captives, I got away crawling.'