By Rachel Irwin –
Appeals judges at the Hague tribunal this week upheld Milan Lukic’s life sentence for a string of grisly crimes committed against Bosniak civilians in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad in 1992.
Lukic, a Bosnian Serb former reserve policeman, was found guilty in July 2009 of personally killing at least 132 Bosniak civilians, over 100 of whom were trapped in two barricaded houses and burned alive. (See Life Term for Milan Lukic.)
He was also convicted of abusing detainees in the Uzamnica prison camp, killing 12 Bosniak men by the banks of the River Drina, and shooting and killing a Bosniak woman called Hajra Koric.
Trial judges concluded that not enough evidence was presented to substantiate the allegation that Lukic was the leader of a paramilitary group. The prosecution did not appeal against this finding.
On appeal, judges upheld the conviction of his cousin and co-defendant Sredoje Lukic for aiding and abetting murder in one of the two house burnings. The majority of appeals judges overturned his conviction for mistreating detainees at the Uzamnica camp, citing “inconsistencies” in the evidence.
The appeals judgement reduced Sredoje Lukic’s prison sentence from 30 years to 27 years.
As presiding Judge Mehmet Guney read out the appeals verdict in open court on December 4, Milan Lukic gazed into the public gallery, smirked, and read silently from a small red bible or prayer book which he had placed on the table in front of him.
By contrast, his cousin Sredoje Lukic looked stricken and close to tears as he listened quietly, his arms crossed tightly against his chest.
A small group of female victims sat in the public gallery and cheered loudly when Milan Lukic’s life sentence was upheld. According to some observers, they also cursed at him.
At the appeals hearing in September 2011, Milan Lukic’s defence contended that witnesses who claimed to have seen the accused at crime scenes misidentified him, and that trial judges accepted their evidence without applying “key legal principles” governing identification evidence. (See Lukic Alleges Mistaken Identity.)
However, Judge Guney said the trial judges had “relied on witnesses’ prior knowledge” of Lukic, and “the inconsistencies in their accounts were minor”.
Appeals judges also dismissed his claims of an alibi for some of the incidents, finding these to be “not reasonably possibly true”. The judges pointed out that his imprisonment in Serbia from April 1993 to late 1994 – cited as one of his alibis – occurred well after the events in the indictment.
Despite the contention of Milan Lukic’s defence that the two house burnings in June 1992 – at Bikavac and at Pionirska street in Visegrad – never happened, the appeals chamber confirmed that they did occur. In both instances, Milan Lukic and other armed men were found to have shut the victims inside the houses, thrown grenades inside and shot at those who tried to escape.
The appeals chamber also confirmed that Sredoje Lukic was one of the armed men present when civilians being held in the house at Pionirska street were “robbed at gunpoint and subjected to criminal acts” before the building was torched. His conviction for aiding and abetting the murders of civilians who died in the burning house was thus upheld.
Appeals judges concluded that 53 people died in the fire at Pionirska street, not 59 as was stated in the original judgement.
They confirmed that 60 people died in the Bikavac fire, the same number as the trial chamber found.
Both defendants asked for a reduction in their prison sentences if their convictions were not overturned.
In his appeal, Milan Lukic argued that when the trial chamber sentenced him to life in prison, it did not give sufficient weight to the fact that he was “involuntarily thrust into the war”, that he was only 25 when the crimes occurred, and that he was a “low ranking” and “inexperienced” reserve policeman at the time.
The prosecution countered by arguing that Milan Lukic “grew efficient in killing while maximising suffering, enjoyed himself, and was not dissuaded by the pleas of his victims”.
The appeals chamber dismissed the accused’s mitigating arguments, stating that he did not demonstrate that his age or status as a reserve policeman were factors that trial judges failed to consider.
“The appeals chamber considers that the crimes for which Milan Lukic has been convicted are extremely grave,” the appeals judgement states.
Therefore, “the reduction of the number of victims of the Pionirska street incident does not impact the sentence imposed by the trial chamber”.
Sredoje Lukic had argued on appeal that his sentence of 30 years was “disproportionate and excessive” since he had been convicted on seven counts of the indictment while his cousin received a life sentence for 19 counts. He also argued that trial judges did not take into account evidence of his “good character” and his claim to have tried to help Bosniaks during the war.
The appeals chamber dismissed all his arguments and recalled that trial judges found that Sredoje Lukic was an “aider and abettor of a series of crimes that culminated in the barbaric killing” of civilians at Pionirska Street. It reduced his sentence to 27 years after acquitting him of mistreating prisoners at the Uzamnica camp.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.