By Marjorie Miller
Times Staff Writer
23 February 2001
The U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague convicted three former Bosnian Serb commanders of rape and torture Thursday in the first international trial to focus exclusively on wartime sexual violence.
The three received sentences ranging from 12 to 28 years for enslaving Bosniak women and girls in “rape camps” during the Bosnian war, after Serbian forces overran the southeastern town of Foca in April 1992.
The sexual violence was deemed to be part of a widespread attack on a civilian population during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and was termed a crime against humanity – a charge second only to genocide.
“Rape was used by members of the Bosnian Serb armed forces as an instrument of terror,” presiding Judge Florence Mumba said as she delivered the verdict. “The three accused are not ordinary soldiers whose morals were merely loosened by the hardships of war…. They thrived in the dark atmosphere of the dehumanization of those believed to be enemies.”
For such abuses, the court sentenced 40-year-old Dragoljub Kunarac to 28 years in prison, 39-year-old Radomir Kovac to 20 years and Zoran Vukovic, also 39, to 12 years.
In London, the rights group Amnesty International applauded the verdict and said it set a precedent.
“This verdict is a significant step for women’s human rights — sexual enslavement in armed conflict is now legally acknowledged as a crime against humanity, and perpetrators can and must be held to account,” the group said in a prepared statement.
The defendants were charged with more than 30 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, torture, enslavement and outrages upon personal dignity. The crimes carry maximum penalties of life in prison.
During the 11-month trial, the court heard testimony from 63 witnesses, including the horrifying accounts of 16 victims held for months in sexual slavery and subjected to multiple gang rapes.
The victims, some of whom were 12 and 13 years old at the time of their abuse, were identified by numbers rather than names as they testified. Their voices were scrambled and their faces hidden to avoid further shame in their conservative Muslim communities. Some sobbed as they recalled their nightmares, but they confronted their attackers in court.
When Serbian forces occupied Foca, they separated Bosniak men and women into separate camps, detaining men in a local prison and women in a sports hall and various hotels and houses. The victims told how soldiers arrived at their detention centers in groups of three to five and selected their prey.
“They would point their finger: ‘You, you and you,’ ” Witness No. 50 told the court in March. Just 16 at the time of her confinement, she was raped so often during two months of terror, she said, that she lost count.
One woman, identified as Witness No. 75, said she was raped for three hours by 15 men. Two teenage girls said they were held for months by one of the defendants as personal sex slaves before each was sold for 500 German marks (about $330 then) to soldiers from the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.
Kunarac commanded a reconnaissance unit of the Bosnian Serb army, while Kovac and Vukovic were paramilitary leaders, according to the prosecution. The three admitted that they participated in the attack on the town but denied the charges against them.
“I remember he was very forceful. He wanted to hurt me,” one witness said, referring to Kunarac. “But he could never hurt me as much as my soul was hurting me.”
The Hague tribunal was established by the U.N. Security Council in 1993 to go after the alleged architects of the Bosnian war’s bloody “ethnic cleansing” campaigns, including the former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic, and his military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic. Both remain at large.
One European Union study estimated that 20,000 women, most of them Bosniaks, were assaulted by Bosnian Serbs during the first year alone. The same year, a U.N. commission concluded that a “systematic rape policy” was being implemented by the Bosnian Serbs.
Thursday’s verdict on wartime rape contrasts with that of the tribunals set up in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, and the reluctance of the Japanese government for decades to recognize the existence of so-called “comfort women” who were forced to serve their soldiers sexually.
At the Rwanda war crimes tribunal, rape has figured as part of a genocide case against a former mayor who was sentenced in October 1998 for his role in his country’s 1994 genocide.
“What sets this apart is that this is a case in which we have a large rape camp organization,” said lead prosecutor Dirk Ryneveld. “This is the first case of sexual enslavement and the only one with sexual assaults and no murders.”
Kunarac and Kovac, who received the longest sentences, kept young women and girls at the quarters as domestic servants and sex slaves. Kunarac organized the transfer of women to other soldiers, while Kovac raped, beat and subsequently sold his charges, including a 12-year-old girl [Almira Bektovic].
“You abused and ravaged Muslim women because of their ethnicity, and from among their number you picked whomsoever you fancied,” Mumba, the presiding judge, told Kunarac.
When his 28-year sentence was announced, Kunarac flinched and looked down.
Regan Ralph, director of the women’s rights division of the group Human Rights Watch, lauded the verdict and said the definition of sexual enslavement as a crime against humanity will serve as the basis to prosecute others who torture women around the world.
But she said she was disappointed that the court held that Kunarac did not have command responsibility for the rapes and sexual assaults committed by soldiers who were arguably under his command.
The tribunal said the prosecution had failed to show that the soldiers were under Kunarac’s control at the time they committed the crimes.
With the rape convictions of three Bosnian Serbs, a U.N. tribunal established sexual enslavement as a crime against humanity.
The panel identified what it said were “elements of particular relevance for the crime of enslavement” relating to sexual assault. They include:
* Detention in poor living conditions and lack of food.
* The victims having “to do everything they were ordered to do, including the cooking and household chores.”
* Exclusive control, with victims at the constant disposal of the rapists.
* Offering the victims to others for sexual abuse in exchange for payment.
* Mistreatment, such as beating and slapping.
* Effective denial of the victims’ control over their own lives.