July 3, 2008 / 1:12 PM / 10 years ago

Hague tribunal acquits Bosnian Muslim on appeal

(adds details, reaction, background, previous THE HAGUE)

By Niclas Mika

AMSTERDAM, July 3 (Reuters) - The U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague on Thursday overturned the conviction of a Bosnian Muslim wartime commander for failing to stop the murder of Serbs near the enclave of Srebrenica early in the 1992-95 conflict.

The court found the case had not been proven against Naser Oric, a hero for many Bosnian Muslims for leading the defence of the town which was later overrun by Bosnian Serbs who killed 8,000 people.

Oric had been originally handed a two-year prison sentence in 2006, but was immediately released since he had been in custody since 2003.

"I am happy, of course," he said after the verdict was announced. "I’ve never believed that Muslims committed crimes in Srebrenica. People under total siege were fighting only to survive."

The killing in July 1995 of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in the eastern town was Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two. Serbs say 3,263 of their own people had earlier been killed by forces under Oric’s command.

The tribunal’s appeals chamber said it had no doubt grave crimes were committed against Serbs in two detention facilities in Srebrenica between September 1992 and March 1993.

"However, proof that crimes have occurred is not sufficient to sustain a conviction of an individual for these crimes," the court said.

"Criminal proceedings require evidence establishing beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is individually responsible for a crime before a conviction can be entered."

When Oric was sentenced in 2006, Serbian politicians and media denounced the light sentence as a mockery of justice.

On Thursday, Serbian officials said the ruling undermined the credibility of the court and was a blow to international law.

"A verdict like this does not help the process of reconciliation in ex-Yugoslavia, which is one of the tribunal’s main goals," said Serbia’s top body for cooperation with The Hague.



NO OFFICIAL HISTORY

The verdict had a mixed reception in Bosnia, where Muslims, Serbs and Croats are still largely suspicious of each other.

With no official history since 1990 — a deliberate omission by academics and education authorities to avoid fanning ethnic tensions — each nation has stuck to its own version of events.

The Hague and international historians of the conflict have established that Bosnian Serbs, backed with guns and money from Belgrade, committed the lion’s share of the atrocities in a campaign to wipe out their Muslim compatriots.

The autonomous Serb half of Bosnia has apologised for the crimes, but many Bosnian Serbs feel the charge is unfair.

"It is evident now that (The Hague) is biased towards the Serbs, who are the main ones charged for war crimes committed in the 1992-95 war," said Miroslav Mikes, a Bosnian Serb lawyer who is trying to get cases of crimes against Serbs before the court.

"The greatest irony is that Oric will likely be compensated for the time he spent in jail despite irrefutable evidence of the crimes he committed."

But Munira Subasic, head of the Women of Srebrenica association, said Oric’s innocence was obvious from the start.

"He was himself the victim of genocide" as 22 members of his family members had been killed by Serbs, Subasic said. "The fact that the court indicted him for war crimes made us all believe it had become unjust." (Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo, Olja Stanic in Banja Luka, Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Writing by Ellie Tzortzi; Editing by Richard Balmforth)



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