ROME – A senior prosecutor from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) denied that sentencing is too lenient when compared with the gravity of the crimes.
Saklaine Hederaly, speaking at the American University of Rome, was part of the team prosecuting Croatian general Ante Gotovina and two other high profile army commanders for crimes committed during conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Gotovina, Garrison Commander Ivan Čermak, and Assistant Minister of Interior in charge of Special Police matters, Mladen Markač, were charged with a joint criminal enterprise against the Serb population from the Krajina region of Croatia. The joint enterprise involved the commission of the crimes of persecution, deportation and forcible transfer, plunder, wanton destruction, inhumane and cruel treatment, and two counts of murder.
They included the shelling and burning of towns, which the court found to be “unlawful attacks on civilians and civilian objects.” One village was entirely destroyed, and two men killed. Senior villagers were called away to a meeting that never took place. They returned to find all the buildings burning, one man shot and another whose throat had been slashed.
Čermak was found not guilty, but Gotovina and Markač were found guilty on all counts except inhumane treatment. They were sentenced to 24 and 18 years respectively. In most national jurisdictions, just one murder conviction would get you a life sentence. Even these sentences are exceptional according to Kederaly, who said it is unusual to see a prison sentence of more than 15 years.
However, Kederaly said the lower sentences can be justified given that the ICTY tries those who order the crimes rather than actually commit them with their own bare hands. “They are so far removed from the crime,” he said, that it seems appropriate to award lighter prison sentences. “The most important thing is to get the conviction.”
In addition, the case created a precedent for the ruling that attacks on citizens can lead to illegal deportation and forcible transfer, and therefore the perpetrator of the former is also guilty of the latter.
Both Gotovina and Markač are appealing their convictions, further drawing out the case which began in the ICTY more than four years ago.
The court heard evidence from more than 100 witnesses and examined nearly 5,000 documents. One of the difficulties in prosecuting international war crimes, said Kederaly, is the obtaining of documents from parties and also finding witnesses willing to testify. "Many are fearful and reluctant," and because the trial began 13 years after the crimes, which took place in 1995, many survivors were very elderly, and their recollection was not always reliable. Indeed the passing of time makes it diffiult to determine how much of what people remember actually happened, and what has been embellished through storytelling, said Kederaly.
In addition, the context of the war in which these crimes took place make the case a highly sensitive one, and these issues must be borne in mind.
From left: Mladen Markač, Ivan Čermak, Ante Gotovina