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May 1997

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[Observer - 11 MAY 1997]

We are all Guilty

JUDGES at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague last week delivered a verdict of historic dimensions - much more far-reaching than suggested by first reaction to the case of the wretched Dusko Tadic.

Tadic, parish-pump thug and killer, was convicted of crimes against humanity in the first such judgement since 1945, upholding the principles set down at Nuremberg. This in itself is important in a world trying, largely without success, to prevent genocidal wars such as those in Bosnia and Rwanda.

Bt the language the judges used and the detail of their verdict takes us a great deal further. Theirs is a pivotal document in the context of the bloodiest carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich. It ends years of beating about the bush on what happened in Bosnia and in the Serbian concentration camps in particular. For the first time the horror stories become legal fact - no longer 'allegations', 'eyewitness testimony', 'survivors' claims' or 'evidence'.

Most press coverage of the verdict concentrated on charges of which Tadic had been acquitted - in particular nine murders, including the case of a man whose testicles were bitten off by fellow prisoners forced to do so.

But this verdict is not like that of an inconclusive boxing match in which one counts up the numbers of charges on each side to reach a points 'draw' - with Tadic getting off 11 counts, being convicted on 11 counts and 11 counts being ruled inapplicable. There is - if one reads the full and extraordinary text of the 310-page verdict - a knockout blow.

That blow is count one, 'persecution', of which Tadic is found guilty. Persecution is a catch-all, which translates in this case as ethnic cleansing. The charge not only nailed Tadic but vindicated - by meeting the highest standards of criminal proof - what journalists working in Bosnia have been shouting from the rooftops for five years, often against hostile wind of international diplomacy.

Before the judges get to Tadic's involvement, they give a seminal judgement on the violence that swept across north-western Bosnia in the spring of 1992. They issue the first legal condemnation of ethnic cleansing, ruling that there was a 'widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population', such as to bring the proceedings within the ambit of 'serious violations of international humanitarian law' as set out at Nuremberg. They rule that this attack was 'in pursuit of a Greater Serbia'.

The judges describe the sacking of the town of Kozarac, near Prijedor, the rounding up of the town's Muslims and the Omarska concentration camp to which many were taken. We have heard these statements before but never with legal authority. The judges rule that 'conditions [at Omarska] were horrendous: killings and torture were frequent'. They describe prisoners having to excrete and urinate in their sleeping quarters and confirm that 'suffering from hunger was acute'. They mentioned a building called the White House, 'reserved for especially brutal treatment of prisoners' and the Red House 'to which prisoners were taken for severe beatings, and from which most often they did not leave alive'. The Red House 'was a small building where prisoners were taken to be beaten and killed'. When prisoners were required to clean the Red House, they often found hair, clothes, blood, footwear and empty pistol cartridges. They also loaded on to trucks bodies of prisoners who had been beaten and killed.'

They add that 'women who were held at Omarska were routinely called out of their rooms at night and raped'. One woman was 'taken out five times and after each rape she was beaten'. And so it goes on: the calling out of prisoners' names, many of whom were never seen again: torture weapons studded with nails to rip flesh. 'Prisoners were often stripped, beaten and kicked and otherwise abused. Many died as a result of these repeated assaults.' In Omarska's interrogation rooms 'prisoners knocked to the floor would be jumped on by guards and severely injured'.

ANOTHER CAMP, Trnopolje, held mostly 'older men, women and childrenĀ·Because this camp housed the largest numbers of women and girls, there were more rapes at this camp than any other.' There were 'beatings and killings' in Trnopolje, say the judges, but its main role was as 'the culmination of the campaign of ethnic cleansing, since those Muslims and Croats who were not killed at Kereterm [a third camp] and Omarska were from Trnopolje, deported from Bosnia-Herzegovina'.

Having established this context, the judges place Tadic in the eye of the storm, beginning with his 'participation in the attack on KozaracĀ·and in the collection and forced transfer of civilians to detention camps'. He killed two Muslim policemen by slitting their throats and called out names as Muslims were marched to the camps; the people called were then executed.

He was found beating prisoners in Omarska, Kereterm and Trnopolje - but the judges go further than that. Although the murder charges are dismissed, failing to meet the high standards of proof, the bench affirms that Tadic 'participated' in all of the incidents related during the harrowing weeks of testimony by the survivors of the camps. 'In some instances [Tadic] was the perpetrator and in others intentionally assisted directly and substantially in the common purpose of inflicting physical suffering upon them, and thereby aided and abetted in the commission of the crimes and is therefore individually responsible for each of them'.

'Additionally', say the judges, 'the accused committed all these acts against non-Serbs with the intent of furthering the establishment of a Greater Serbia and he shared the concept that non-Serbs should be forcibly removed from the territory.

By acknowledging the 'crimes against humanity' and 'widespread and systematic' nature of the pogrom, the judges have laid the ground for charges to be brought against the two men at the apex of the chain of command - the Bosnian Serb leaders General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic - if only the international community will fulfil that mandate.

Those of us who had been in Bosnia knew the tribunal witnesses were telling the truth, that this hurricane of violence was a racial pogrom initiated by the Serbs and by them alone, in pursuit of an ethnically 'pure' Greater Serbia. It was not combat between 'sides' that were in some way equal or equivalent to each other, and between which the international community was thus obliged to remain neutral.

THIS NEUTRALITY has now been judged in a court of law to be based on a misapprehension. It was probably a deliberate misapprehension - used to justify three years of inaction and betrayal, until the apocalyptic massacres at Srebrenica.

Much of the verdict echoes what was reported by ITN and myself, and by our colleagues Roy Gutman and Maggie O'Kane, after we first stumbled upon those camps. People hesitated to believe us. The United Nations said that there were camps like Omarska 'on all sides', which was nonsense. The US State Department denied all knowledge - a lie. In Britain the pogrom was played down by a political establishment determined not to become stitched into the war. Diplomats squealed about 'all parties to the conflict'.

The real story was told over and over again by camp survivors and 'cleansed' Muslims but still the received wisdom in the wider world was that of 'moral equivalence', the rationale that refuses to distinguish between persecutor and persecuted, camp inmate and guard, raped and rapist, family cowering in their home and soldiers stomping up the path towards the front door.

It was a bloody and treacherous 'neutrality' in circumstances when neutrality was not neutral at all. At last it has been unmasked as a neutrality that spat in the face of international law.

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