THE HAGUE, Netherlands – A U.N. war crimes court convicted a former senior Bosnian Serb army commander Wednesday of genocide for playing a key role in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II and sentenced him to life imprisonment, delivering another measure of justice to survivors still hunting for the remains of their husbands and sons.
In a majority ruling, a three-judge panel at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal said Gen. Zdravko Tolimir was the “right hand” of Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic, who is considered the chief architect of the murder of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys at the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia in July 1995.
“The accused not only had knowledge of genocidal intent of others but also possessed it himself,” Presiding Judge Christoph Fluegge said. “He is therefore responsible for the crime of genocide.”
Women who lost their menfolk in the massacre travelled to The Hague to watch the judgment and were pleased with the latest conviction.
“Finally we witnessed a small bit of justice,” said Munira Subasic, leader of a group called the Mothers of Srebrenica. “We are still alive to witness it and we are still searching for the bones of our sons.”
Tolimir stood, crossed himself three times and removed his glasses but showed no emotion as Fluegge told him he had been convicted of genocide and would spend the rest of his life in prison.
Before the judgment was read, he told the court: “I wish for these proceedings to be concluded in accordance with God’s will.”
Tolimir, 64, is the latest Serb soldier to be convicted of genocide in the bloody climax of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war that left around 100,000 dead. He was found guilty of seven charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and the war crime of murder. He was acquitted of one count of deportation.
The judgment shed little new light on the overall mechanics of the massacre, which are already well known, but highlighted chilling details of the murders.
“Some of the wounded prisoners were cursed and left to suffer in agony before they were finally killed,” Fluegge said. “One of the groups of prisoners included a boy of approximately five to six years old, who, after being shot at, stood up from the pile of bodies and called out for his father.”
Mladic and his political master Radovan Karadzic are still on trial for overseeing Serb atrocities throughout the Bosnian war, including the Srebrenica massacre.
Tolimir was the top Bosnian Serb intelligence officer and a trusted aide of Mladic. Witnesses called him Mladic’s “right hand. His eyes and ears,” Fluegge said. Tolimir had, Fluegge added, “full knowledge of the despicable criminal operations” of Bosnian Serb forces that carried out the massacre.
Bosnian Serb forces overran Srebrenica in 1995, despite the presence of Dutch United Nations peacekeepers who were outgunned and outnumbered, and who put up virtually no resistance. The Bosnian Serb forces later took over another U.N. protected enclave in the nearby town of Zepa.
Women were bused away from the area before the Muslim men and boys were rounded up, taken to remote locations around the town and executed. Their bodies were then plowed into mass graves.
“The suffering these men went through in the moments leading up to their deaths must have been unbearable. On many occasions those waiting to be shot saw others executed,” Fluegge said.
The judges also reflected on the genocide’s effect on those who survived it, noting “the extreme suffering of the approximately 30,000-35,000 women and children forcibly removed from both enclaves, and their inability to live a normal and constructive life to this day.”
Srebrenica widow Rejha Avdic, 50, who lost her husband in the massacre, said she was satisfied after watching the verdict on a television in the office of the Association of Srebrenica Survivors in Tuzla.
“This is what we expected and we feel better now,” she said. “We hope the court will continue to conduct fair trials.”
Associated Press writer Aida Cerkez contributed from Sarajevo, Bosnia.