By Ognjen Zorić and Dženana Karabegović
Last week’s acquittal of former Yugoslav army chief Momcilo Perisic at an appeal hearing in The Hague has been welcomed in Serbia, where it is seen as a vindication of the country’s role in the Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s.
The appeals judges’ decision prompted a mix of shock and disappointment in Bosnia and Croatia, where the Yugoslav army is accused of directly supporting local Serb insurgents.
In September 2011, Perisic was convicted of aiding and abetting crimes committed against civilians during the siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, which left thousands dead, as well as the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which over 7,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered.
He was also found guilty, as a military commander, of failing to punish members of the Croatian Serb army, known as the SVK, for launching rocket attacks on Zagreb in May 1995.
Perisic was sentenced to 27 years in prison, but on February 28 this year, appeals judges overturned the entire original verdict and ordered Perisic’s immediate release. (See Yugoslav Army Chief Acquitted on Appeal.)
Officials in Belgrade welcomed the judgement which in their view absolved the Yugoslav and Serbian leadership of the time of responsibility for crimes committed in the Bosnian and Croatian conflicts.
Serbian prime minister Ivica Dacic said Perisic’s acquittal was “good news”.
The judgement was “very important for Serbia because it proved there was no aggression by the Yugoslav army against Bosnia and Croatia”, he said.
Serbia’s deputy chief prosecutor for war crimes, Bruno Vekaric, added that the ruling proved that “General Perisic, as chief of the Yugoslav army, did not violate the customs of war or international conventions”.
Rasim Ljajic, who heads the Serbian body responsible for engaging with the Hague tribunal, said the decision was a just one, and of particular significance given the gravity of the charges brought against Perisic and the 27-year sentence he received.
Not everyone in Serbia applauded the decision. Sandra Orlovic, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade, expressed concern that it would set back the process of facing the past in Serbia.
In her view, the judgement does not capture the true extent of Yugoslav army support for Serb forces in Bosnia and Croatia.
“Perisic was the personification of Serbia’s institutionalised support for these two armies,” she said. I should note that although individual responsibility was not established, nor did the judges’ explanation of their ruling deny the fact that the Yugoslav army supported the VRS [Bosnian Serb army] and the SVK for years.”
This military support, Orlovic believes, “has to be the starting point for assessing Serbia’s responsibility for the wars in Bosnia and Croatia”.
Before last week’s acquittal, Perisic was the first Serbian state official convicted of crimes committed during the war in Bosnia.
In Bosnia, victims of wartime crimes and commentators voiced their disbelief at this turn of events.
“I am very disappointed in the Hague tribunal,” Fazila Efendic, a survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, said. “I have waited 20 years for justice. Where is that justice now?”
Many said the ruling had undermined their confidence in the Hague tribunal as an institution.
“This is a scandalous decision,” said Fadila Memisevic, head of the Society for Threatened Peoples in Bosnia. “In acquitting Perisic, the tribunal has started to lose credibility. It’s a harsh blow to all those victims who were expecting justice.”
Hatidza Mehmedovic, head of the Mothers of Srebrenica association, spoke of “a reward for crimes and punishment for victims”.
“Shame on the Hague tribunal, the prosecutor, the judges and all those who made this happen,” she said.
Mirsad Tokaca, director of the Research and Documentation Centre in Sarajevo, noted that the Perisic ruling was the latest in a series of acquittals by the tribunal in a matter of months, also including former Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, and Kosovo’s ex-prime minister Ramush Haradinaj.
“Instead of being a completely neutral judicial institution that only judges the facts and evidence and does not deal with anything else, the last few decisions have shown that the Hague tribunal has become highly politicised,” Tokaca said. “These acquittals are only fuelling claims that this is a political court that delivers political judgements.
“That is not good. It’s not good for international justice, it’s not good for the whole region, and I think that everything that the Hague tribunal has been building for years has been put in jeopardy by these acquittals.”
Commentators in Croatia expressed disappointment at the Perisic acquittal on all counts, including in relation to the bombardment of Zagreb on May 3, 1995, which left six people dead and more 200 wounded.
Ante Nazor, director of the Croatian Information and Documentation Centre for the War of Independence, said he disagreed with appeals judges in their finding that Perisic only carried out the orders he received from the Supreme Defence Council, SDC, in Belgrade.
“I am surprised by the judges’ ruling, because I believe that Perisic was one of the major wheels in that mechanism [SDC],” Nazor said.
Ognjen Zoric and Dzenana Karabegovic are RFE and IWPR reporters in Belgrade and Sarajevo, respectively. Enis Zebic, an RFE and IWPR reporter from Zagreb, contributed to this report. This article was published by IWPR’s TRI Issue 778.