It is always slightly surreal, sitting in the public gallery of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), with nothing but a see-through wall separating the audience from the accused.
By Nenad Golcevski in The Hague
It is awkward, even uneasy to be so close to persons allegedly responsible for numerous, immeasurable tragedies, yet it is immensely reassuring to know that they are being held to account. Today, that mix of simultaneous uneasiness and assuredness was even more intense in the public gallery of the Courtroom 3 of the ICTY during the Appeal Chamber’s hearing in the case against Milan and Sredoje Lukic. This is because the Lukic cousins have been accused, and convicted by the Trial Chamber in July 2009, for some of the most monstrous crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
Unlike a majority of other indictees in the ICTY who are accused of planning and organising, Milan and Sredoje Lukic are charged with personally executing, enthusiastically and brutally, the crimes of murder, persecution, torture and extermination.
In 1992, Milan Lukic was considered by many the master of life and death in the war-torn eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad. He was the leader of the paramilitary group “White Eagles” infamous for its cruelty, which, with the complicity or acquiescence of the Serb authorities, spread terror against the non-Serb population.
Sredoje Lukic, a policeman in Visegrad before the war, joined his cousin Milan’s group. Among the numerous acts of torture, humiliation, beatings and public executions of the non-Serbs allegedly committed by Milan Lukic and his men, two crimes for which the Trial Chamber has found him guilty stand out as particularly gruesome.
In two separate incidents, groups of approximately 70 Muslim civilians – among them women, children and elderly - were gathered, strip-searched, robbed at gunpoint and locked in a house, which was then set on fire. At least 119 people have been burned alive in those two incidents, among them a baby less than a year old. After setting the houses on fire, Milan Lukic was standing in front of them with a gun, shooting down his half-burned victims as they were trying to escape the living hell by jumping through the windows. The testimony given by Zehra Turjacanin, one of the few survivors of these human torches, provided a vivid, horrifying account of those events: “People were burning alive next to me... everyone was screaming... the flame started catching me... I had to let my sisters go to try to escape...”.
In the course of the trial, Milan Lukic’s defence claimed that the alleged events where people have been burned alive never occurred, while the defence of Sredoje Lukic focused on proving that their client did not take part in the crimes. Both of them claimed they were not in Visegrad at the time when the crimes took place. However, later during the trial it was revealed that one of Milan Lukic’s alibi witnesses, Zuhdija Tabakovic, a Muslim from Visegrad, had received a bribe of 1.000 euros from the defence case manager, in exchange for providing a false statement.
Just over two years ago, the Trial Chamber sentenced Milan Lukic to life imprisonment, concluding that: “there is a unique cruelty in expunging all traces of the individual victims which must heighten the gravity ascribed to these crimes”. It is only the second time in the history of the ICTY that an accused has been sentenced to life imprisonment. Sredoje Lukic, who unlike Milan was not found guilty of the crime of extermination, has been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. Both defences, as well as the prosecution, have appealed.
Both sides appeal
During today’s hearing before the Appeal Chamber, both defences have asked for the reversal of the Trial Chamber’s judgment and for their clients to be acquitted. In essence, their arguments come down to claims of mistaken identity. Milan Lukic's counsel argued that the procedure of in-court identification applied in this case was not adequate. Both defence councils claimed that their clients were not present at the crime scenes. They argued that the witnesses were not in a position to identify the accused for a variety of reasons, e.g. because of the lack of light at the crime scene, and the distance between the victims and the perpetrators. The Prosecution also appealed the original judgment of 2009, claiming that Sredoje Lukic should be found guilty of two additional charges, and that his sentence should be increased accordingly.
The Appeal Chamber will now deliberate the arguments presented to it in the course of today’s hearing. It is expected to reach and present its judgment in several months' time.