THE HAGUE: UN judges on Wednesday began handing down judgement in the appeals case of six former Bosnian Croat political and military leaders, in the court’s final verdict for war crimes committed during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.
The case of Jadranko Prlic and five others draws the curtain on two decades of work by the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), set up in 1993 at the height of the Balkans wars to prosecute Europe’s worst atrocities since World War II.
In a case which has been keenly watched in Zagreb, Prlic, the former “prime minister” of a Bosnian Croat breakaway statelet, and his five co-defendants were found guilty in 2013 on 26 charges of taking part in a scheme to remove Bosnian Muslims “permanently and create a Croatian territory”.
Prlic, 58, who led the “Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna”, has appealed his 25-year term imposed by the court in The Hague. The five others, including the former defence minister, are also appealing long prison sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years.
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The bloody 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, in which 100,000 people died and 2.2 million were displaced, mainly pitted Bosnian Muslims against Bosnian Serbs, but also saw some brutal fighting between Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats after an initial alliance fell apart.
Wednesday’s verdict comes a week after the judges imposed a life sentence on former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, whose ruthlessness in the conflict earned him the title the “Butcher of Bosnia”.
The bald and bespectacled Prlic, who once turned down a promising career in Washington as an economist, has vehemently denied the charges.
He told the court in March his trial represented “a dark side of international justice” insisting he “was not part of the chain of command” of the main Bosnian-Croat army in Bosnia, the HVO.
But Croatian communities needed to organise themselves, militarily as well, as the Bosnian Republic had not defended them, he said.
The prosecution has also appealed the sentences, urging judges to impose 40-year terms on Prlic and three of his co-defendants, saying the “crimes were massive in scale”.
“Tens of thousands of Muslims were evicted from their homes… thousands were arrested and detained in awful conditions,” said prosecutor Barbara Goy.
“Muslims were killed during attacks or when forced to work on the front-lines. They were raped, they were sexually assaulted. Muslim houses and mosques were destroyed,” she said.
Prlic’s co-defendants are former defence minister Bruno Stojic, 62, and four other military officials: Slobodan Praljak, 72, Milivoj Petkovic, 68, Valentin Coric, 61, and Berislav Pusic, 65.
Praljak was specifically charged with ordering the destruction of Mostar’s 16th-century bridge in November 1993, which judges said “caused disproportionate damage to the Muslim civilian population”.
A symbol of Bosnia’s devastation in the war, the iconic Ottoman-era bridge was later rebuilt. But the city saw the worst of the Croat-Muslim clashes, with nearly 80 percent of the city’s east destroyed in the fighting.
The statelet, backed by government of Croatian nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman, was formally dismantled in 1996 as part of the peace deal that ended the war.
But the “president” of Herceg-Bosna, Mate Boban, died in 1997 and Tudjman in 1999, leaving Prlic the highest-ranking Bosnian Croat official to face judgement for the crimes.
The ICTY charged Prlic and his co-defendants in 2004. The six surrendered with Croatia under pressure to comply with the court in return for joining the European Union.
Mostar, an impoverished city, and its industry never recovered from the conflict, and ethnic divisions still run deep.
But “we have to live together, we have no other choice, that’s how we have to take this verdict and leave it to historians to write the story,” said Croat politician Zoran Mikulic.
The ICTY closes its doors on December 31, having indicted and dealt with 161 people.
Appeals, such as for former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, sentenced in 2016 to 40 years, will be dealt with a new tribunal known as the MICT.