Crime in Donja Drežnica
On 27 August 2007, the main hearing in the case against Zijad Kurtović began at the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Zijad Kurtović was charged for war crimes against civilians and war prisoners, committed in the village of Donja Drežnica in the Mostar district. On 30 April 2008, the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to an aggregate prison sentence of 11 years.
On 25 March 2009, the Appellate Panel modified the first instance verdict in respect of the legal qualification. Nevertheless, the defendant received again an aggregate prison sentence of 11 years.
The indictment No. KT-RZ 115/06, confirmed on 10 May 2007, charged Zijad Kurtović with a war crime against civilians pursuant to Article 173 (1) (c), (e) and (f) of the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereinafter: BiH CC), a war crime against war prisoners pursuant to Article 173 (1) (a) and (b) of the BiH CC, and a breach of Laws and Customs of War referred to in Article 179 (1) and (2) (d) of the same Act.
According to the indictment, in the second half of 1993, during the armed conflict between the Croatian Defence Council and the Army of the BiH Republic in the village of Donja Drežnica in the Mostar district, the defendant, who was a member of the BiH Republic’s Army and commander of the Military Police Squad within the “Drežnica” Independent Battalion of the 4th Corps of the B&H Army, committed the following criminal acts:
1. On an unestablished date in October 1993, the defendant tortured 20 detained Croats in the All Saints’ Catholic church by ordering them to hold their hands above their heads and stand that way for a long time, causing them immense fear. In front of the church altar, the defendant interrogated the detainees and beat them with his fists, iron pipes and wooden batons.
2. On several occasions during October 1993, the defendant beat the incarcerated Croats, civilians and war prisoners with police batons and other objects in the church, forcing them to sing the following lines: «From some place to a door somewhere else, there will be no Serbs or Croats left» thus keeping them in constant fear.
3. On several occasions during October 1993, the defendant ordered members of Drežnica Civil Protection Unit to take the incarcerated Croats to the front lines and use them as a live shield, or make them dig trenches and carry the food, the ammunition and the dead.
4. During October 1993 in the All Saints’ church, the defendant, together with Hasan Delić, forced the detained brothers A and B to have oral sex. He ordered a detainee (name undisclosed) to take off his clothes and then the defendant and Hasan Delić beat him with a police baton and extinguished lit cigarettes on his body, due to which the prisoner lost consciousness and his body turned black and blue from severe blows.
5. In the early October 1993, during night hours in the All Saints’ church, the defendant, together with the unknown members of the BiH Republic Army, forced the incarcerated Croats to hold electricity wire with applied voltage with their bare hands while they spilt water over their feet to ensure ‘better conduction’, causing the prisoners severe pain.
6. During October 1993 in the All Saints’ church, the defendant, together with Hasan Delić, Senad Bobić, Izet Kurtović, and other unknown members of the BiH Republic’s Army, forced the detainees to play the church organ and then pulled out the organ keys and beat them in the head with the end of the key from which a nail stuck out.
7. During October 1993 in the All Saints’ church, the defendant repeatedly hit one detainee in the kidney area with a wooden chair leg because the detainee had not reported he had a (wrist) watch with him.
8. During October 1993 in the All Saints’ church, the defendant was holding one detainee while an unknown member of the BiH Republic’s Army repeatedly beat him in the spinal area with his boot, and then himself repeatedly hit the detainee in the head with his fist.
9. In the early October 1993 in the All Saints’ church, the defendant forced one detainee to spin on the ground like a crocodile and was present while four unknown members of the B&H Army repeatedly kicked the detainee.
10. During October 1993 in the All Saints church, under command and supervision of the defendant, an unknown member of the BiH Republic’s Army kicked the detainee (name undisclosed) in the mouth and pulled out a few of the detainee’s teeth with his bare hands. Afterwards, the defendant threw the detainee over a bench and repeatedly beat him in the back.
11. During October 1993 in the All Saints’ church, the defendant, together with Hasan Delić, Senad Bobić, and Izet Kurtović, demolished religious objects, burnt church benches and wrote blasphemous graffiti on the inside walls.
The Court of BiH
Case File number: X-KRO/06/299
Trial Panel: Judge Minka Kreho, Council President, Judges Dekkers Roland Antonius, Theodora Mathieu, and Lindshet Tore Ingrar, Council Members.
Prosecution: Vesna Tančica
Defence: Fahrija Karkin
The prosecuting attorney Vesna Tančica examined 17 prosecution witnesses during the main hearing. Two witnesses testified under protection measures at the sessions closed to the public. At the total of 20 trial sessions, the Prosecution presented nearly 100 pieces of evidence.
The Prosecution suggested examining Ante Rozić, the witness whose testimony would have been very significant for establishing the level of criminal responsibility of the defendant. The examination was to be performed via video link, as the witness, who had acquired a disability of 70% due to mental and physical torture, was located in Zagreb. After the Trial Panel requested additional medical documentation and expert examination of his disability, the Prosecution abandoned plans to call the witness, claiming that it had lost contact with him. We find this decision inappropriate since this testimony of this witness would have been extremely important for the establishment of facts.
Beside the fact that it omitted to hear the above named witness, the Prosecution paid most attention to the depositions of the protected witnesses A and B, whose testimonies about torture and humiliation they had been subjected to were heard at a closed session.
The Prosecution also focused on the statements of the following witnesses who testified about incidents at the All Saints’ church in Drežnica:
Witness Mirko Zelenika: «The detainees were interrogated and beaten mostly by Zijad Kurtović. He particularly beat and swore at those who said they came from the town of Jajce. After the interrogation, which usually lasted one hour, Zijad Kurtović ordered that the detainees be taken to the forced labour. At his command, the detainees were given overalls with numbers. This witness received overalls with number 7.»
Witness Marinko Ljojo: «Zijad Kurtović, commander of the Military Police, once ordered that the detainees be given Bibles and made to eat them. Some detainees were beaten.»
Witness Matija Jakšić: «Zijad Kurtović sowed terror in Drežnica, and once he placed a gun into my mouth.»
Witness Miroslav Soko: «All pictures of the Way of the Cross and statues [were] broken over the heads of the detainees. All detainees were forced to eat paper from holy books and rosaries.»
Witness Kamilo Dumančić: «They beat us with whatever objects they could find in the church, made us eat holy books and rosaries… [they beat us] with pictures, crosses, police bats, books found behind the altar, anything they could find in the church.»
Among 11 detainees who testified about ill-treatment at the All Saints’ church in Drežnica, only one person had known the defendant from earlier period. The Court accepted his deposition as valid as it was consistent with the statements of other witnesses who had regularly seen accused Kurtović at the church, thus undoubtedly confirming his identity.
On behalf of the regional war crime trials monitoring team, this procedure was observed by monitors from the Research and Documentation Centre Sarajevo, whose monitoring reports, observations and opinions are presented here.
The Court found Zijad Kurtović guilty on all 11 counts of the indictment, but acquitted him of accountability for committing the crimes in his capacity as commander of the Military Police Squad, finding that there was no proof to substantiate the mentioned charges.
However, the Court found that it had been proved that Zijad Kurtović did commit a war crime against civilians, a war crime against war prisoners, and a breach of Laws and Customs of War. The Court pronounced a ten-year prison sentence for each crime. The defendant received an aggregate sentence of 11 years in prison.
The Prosecution requested detention order until the final verdict is passed, however, the request was rejected.
On 25 March 2009, the first instance verdict was modified in respect of the legal qualification because the Appellate Panel held that the first instance trial panel should have applied the provisions of the SFRJ Criminal Law and not of the BiH Criminal Code. Nevertheless, the defendant received again an aggregate sentence of 11 years in prison.
The monitoring team of the Research and Documentation Centre Sarajevo believes that the trial was fair and objective, but finds the pronounced sentence too lenient considering the severity of the committed crimes.
With only minimum delays, the trial ended in less than a year. The Trial Panel conducted the procedure correctly and efficiently, not allowing any time to be wasted on establishing earlier established facts or examination of witnesses who would not have testified about new circumstances.
The Trial Panel found the defendant guilty on all 11 charges of the indictment – of a crime against civilians, a crime against war prisoners and a breach of Laws and Customs of War. The defendant was sentenced to ten years in prison for each crime – a total of 30 years. The Court lawfully passed a minimum combined (aggregate) sentence of 11 years in prison, justifying the decision with the fact that there was one undivided protected object (namely, both the crime against civilians and the crime against war prisoners were actually committed against a single group of people) and one crime scene, but also finding extenuating circumstances, such as the fact that the defendant is a family man.
While acknowledging the argument that the war crimes against civilians and war prisoners were committed against one group of people, we still believe that the sentence is inappropriate considering the seriousness of the crime, level of criminal responsibility, displayed hatred and monstrosity of the committed acts, and the intention and readiness of the defendant to repeat the crimes.
The Trial Panel did not accept the Prosecution’s requests for detention order filed both during the procedure and after the announcement of the first-instance verdict, so the defendant has been free while waiting for the decision of the Appellate Panel. The Research and Documentation Centre believes that such a decision relativizes the suffering of the victims and slows down the process of reconciliation and coexistence.
We also believe that after the final verdict is announced, the Prosecution should demand prosecution of all witnesses who might have given false testimonies during the trial.
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