Two Serbs Face Murder, Rape Charges in Bosnia’s First War Crimes Trial

The Washington Post
March 12, 1993

SARAJEVO – Lawyer Branko Martic isn’t sure his client is innocent, but he hopes so.

“I have a hard time accepting that the crimes charged against my client can be committed,” Martic said. “I won’t feel pleasant if it is proved that he is guilty.”

The offenses Martic refers to are known as war crimes. His client is Sretko Damjanovic, a captured Bosnian Serb militiaman who is accused of murdering five civilians, including a Slavic Muslim girl he allegedly raped before killing, and two brothers whose throats he allegedly slit.

On Friday, the first war crimes trial in Bosnia is to start at Sarajevo’s main courthouse, and Martic will be defending one of the two Serbs in the dock. Damjanovic and co-defendant Borislav Herak were captured several months ago when they took a wrong turn near the front line and drove straight into a checkpoint manned by Bosnia’s Muslim-led government forces.

Since then, prosecutors say, the two captured Serbs have confessed to an array of war crimes. The United Nations has begun collecting information on war crimes by all warring parties in Bosnia, and hundreds have been identified as potential war criminals. But only Damjanovic and Herak are in the custody of the Bosnian government.

“This is the first trial in which charges are being pressed against people who committed crimes that have not been committed since World War II,” said prosecutor Ljubomir Lukic, who is expected to ask for the maximum punishment: death by firing squad.

The trial may highlight the difficulty of prosecuting Serbs for alleged war crimes: The crimes took place on territory held by Serbs, most of the victims were killed or have disappeared, and any surviving witnesses are most probably Serbs who will not cross the front lines to testify against their brethren.

Lukic admits to frustration over the fact that the two Serbs in the dock are small fish. The people who should be tried first, he argues, are the political leaders who ordered or approved of the rape, murder and pillage that took place over the past 11 months as Serb nationalist forces seized 70 percent of Bosnia.

“We want to show the world . . . what some members of Bosnia’s Serb population have done,” Lukic said. “But we know that {the two defendants} only represent the image of an evil policy. The strings are pulled by more important people.”

Herak, 22, will have the starring role in the trial. Since his capture, the Serb militiaman has given voluminous interviews to foreign journalists. He has told of raping and killing Muslim women, of lining up civilians and mowing them down with his assault rifle, of throwing bodies into a mass grave and using a bulldozer to dump dirt on top of them. He has lost count of the precise number of people he killed. He is being charged with raping more than a dozen women and killing 20 people.

Herak’s court-appointed lawyer is Milan Prpa, a Bosnian Serb who started practicing law in Sarajevo in 1987 and doesn’t like to talk to journalists about his unusual client. Damjanovic’s lawyer, Martic, said nobody has reproached him so far but that he expects criticism once the trial begins. “The accused has a legal right to a defense, and my obligation is to do the best I can do for him,” he said.

The Bosnian government says the trial will be conducted fairly, and prosecutor Lukic said he has received no instructions from political authorities. But remarkably, in a Muslim-led republic, neither defense lawyer is Muslim — Prpa is a Serb, and Martic is half Croat, one-quarter Serb and one-quarter Czech.

Before this week, Martic had met twice with his client, each time for half an hour with a guard present. On Wednesday, he met alone with Damjanovic for the first time, less than 48 hours before the trial. But Martic said he has had enough time to prepare the defense.

Most of the evidence against the two Serbs is apparently based on their confessions, and if either defendant recants the prosecution might have a hard time proving its case. Lukic, the prosecutor, said he will present several witnesses but that only one saw Herak or Damjanovic fire at civilians.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.