Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In convicting five Bosnian Croats for the April 16, 1993, massacre of more than one hundred Bosnian Muslims in a small Bosnian village, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia served notice that all national communities would be held accountable for human rights violations committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Summary of Event

Created in 1918 as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes out of remnants of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and renamed Yugoslavia in 1929, Yugoslavia was once viewed as a prime example of a major principle over which World War I had been fought: national self-determination. Yugoslavia was a union of the Slavs, the country’s name itself meaning “southern Slav state.” However, within itself Yugoslavia was far from united. Rather, it was composed of numerous contentious national groups, each with its own culture and many with historical grievances against the other communities in the state. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Ahnici massacre Massacres;Ahnici Muslims;Bosnia and Herzegovina Yugoslavia;human rights abuses United Nations;international courts [kw]Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre (Jan. 14, 2000) [kw]Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre, Hague (Jan. 14, 2000) [kw]Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre, Hague Court Convicts (Jan. 14, 2000) [kw]Croats of 1993 Massacre, Hague Court Convicts Bosnian (Jan. 14, 2000) [kw]Massacre, Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 (Jan. 14, 2000) International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Ahnici massacre Massacres;Ahnici Muslims;Bosnia and Herzegovina Yugoslavia;human rights abuses United Nations;international courts [g]Europe;Jan. 14, 2000: Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre[10590] [g]Balkans;Jan. 14, 2000: Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre[10590] [g]Netherlands;Jan. 14, 2000: Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre[10590] [g]Yugoslavia;Jan. 14, 2000: Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre[10590] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 14, 2000: Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre[10590] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Jan. 14, 2000: Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre[10590] Cassese, Antonio Santic, Vladimir Josipovic, Drago Papic, Dragan Tito

The Serbs, who long fought the Austrians to create a Greater Serbia, were the dominant group. They resided primarily in the Serbian region in eastern Yugoslavia, but they were scattered throughout as minorities in Yugoslavia’s other regions. In western Yugoslavia, the Croats were the majority national group; the Croats had little love for the Serbs. To the north was Slovenia, the only region that was almost ethnically homogeneous (97 percent Slovene). South of Slovenia and lying between the dominant Croatian and Serbian regions of Yugoslavia was Bosnia and Herzegovina, Yugoslavia’s most ethnically mixed region. There, a large Bosnian Muslim population shared the land with a large Croatian community in Bosnia’s west and an even larger Serbian population in the east.

Ethnonational conflict troubled Yugoslavia throughout its history, forcing the national government in Belgrade to reorganize the country into federal units called republics in the 1930’s to appease Croatian separatists. This led to bloody Serbo-Croatian conflict during World War II, when occupying German forces gave the Croatians a measure of self-rule in return for their collaboration in governing Yugoslavia. The Croatians frequently used their power to settle old scores with the Serbs, killing hundreds of thousands during the war, but at a high price. In the course of the war, Yugoslavia’s heavily Serbian resistance, led by Marshal Tito, killed nearly as many Croat collaborators as Germans—numbers also measured in the hundreds of thousands.

Despite World War II’s exacerbation of Serbo-Croatian tensions, the emergence of a Soviet-controlled empire in Central Europe after the war forced Yugoslavia’s large Serb, Croat, and Bosnian Muslim communities and smaller Montenegrin, Macedonian, and Albanian communities to live together or risk Soviet control. Consequently, Tito was able to establish a more or less durable government over Yugoslavia’s federal republics from 1945 until his death in 1980. Thereafter, cracks began to develop in the Yugoslav federation; however, as late as 1984, when the Winter Olympics Games were held in Sarajevo, the face that Yugoslavia presented to the outside world was one of cosmopolitan, multinational harmony. Less than a decade later, with the weakening and then collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia violently fell apart.

Bosnian Croats Mirjan Kupreskic, Zoran Kupreskic (front row, left to right), Dragan Papic, Drago Josipovic, and Vlatko Kupreskic (back row, left to right) before sentencing.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The process began in June, 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia unilaterally declared their independence from Slobodan Milošević’s Serb-dominated regime in Belgrade. A brief conflict occurred in Slovenia during the summer of 1991, but because Slovenia had such a small Serbian population, Belgrade quickly abandoned efforts to retain control there and shifted its focus to Croatia, where approximately 20 percent of the population was Serbian. The war raged in Croatia throughout the winter and into the spring of 1992, when the cease-fire obtained in March by United Nations mediators essentially ended it. Action then shifted to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had voted in February, 1992, for independence even though a nearly 40 percent Serbian plurality strongly opposed secession.

Ethnic conflicts spanning generations (even centuries), religious conflicts, and civil wars threatening the physical existence of a state are normally distinguishable from other forms of political conflict by the unusually high level of violence and the numbers of atrocities they spawn. In the former Yugoslavia, all of the wars were perceived by the government in Belgrade as civil wars testing the survival of the Serbian-ruled state, and all were fought against groups with long histories of resistance to Serb rule. In Bosnia, a religious dimension further inflamed the conflict, which eventually pitted the largely Catholic Croats, Greek Orthodox Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims against one another. Perhaps for these reasons, from the beginning the conflict in Bosnia was especially ferocious.

For most of its first year, the war in Bosnia pitted Bosnian Serbs, with assistance from Belgrade, against Bosnia’s Croats, who received aid from Croatia, and Muslims, who through most of the war lacked outside assistance because of a U.N. arms embargo that effectively cut them off from the help of outside Muslim states. Throughout, the war was ugly. Neighbors turned against one another, and the cosmopolitan veneer of Sarajevo vanished as the city’s main arteries became “snipers’ alleys.”

Fighting was particularly fierce because it was carried out not only by regular armies but also by numerous local paramilitary and vigilante groups, often with personal grievances. These units, like the feared members of the military police unit known as the Jokers, declared their war on anyone and often went out of their way to be savage in order to terrorize the survivors among a local minority into leaving their area. Even so, the incident that gave rise to the January, 2000, conviction of five Croats accused of crimes against humanity was particularly odious. It was also part of a Croatian campaign of ethnic cleansing that significantly escalated the civil war in Bosnia.

Until 1993, Bosnian Croats and Muslims were nominal allies in a war for independence against the Serbs. Then, in January, an armed Croat-Muslim conflict erupted when the paramilitary Croatian Defense Council (HVO) launched a four-month-long military action against Muslims living in the Lasva River Valley region of central Bosnia. One of the most violent parts of that campaign was the April 16 assault on the predominantly Muslim village of Ahnici-Santici, which was first shelled and then assailed on a house-by-house basis. It was that action that led to the case decided in January, 2000, one of five growing out of the Lasva River campaign.

Five defendants in the case—Vladimir Santic, the leader of the Jokers, who spearheaded the operation; Drago Josipovic; the Kupreskic brothers, Zoran and Mirjan; and their cousin Vlatko—were charged in November, 1995, and later convicted of systematically burning the village’s 172 Bosnian homes while sparing Croatian dwellings, killing 116 Muslim inhabitants (including 33 women and children), and driving the remaining Muslims from the village. In delivering the tribunal’s opinion in January, 2000, the presiding judge, Antonio Cassese, described the massacre at Ahnici as “one of the most vicious illustrations of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Significance

The April, 1993, attack on Ahnici was in many ways a microcosm of the most savage aspects of the civil war in Bosnia. It was vicious, and it quickly became a part of the public record in a war that was graphically covered by the international news media from its beginning. Indeed, it was perhaps the brazenness as much as the nature of the acts against human rights that transpired during the war that propelled the United Nations into establishing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on May 25, 1993, only a few weeks after the events at Ahnici.

Similarly, the ICTY’s handling of the Ahnici case was exemplary of the tribunal’s professional and impartial work in processing the cases that came before it, and it is in the impartiality the ICTY showed in reaching its conclusion in the Ahnici case that the immediate significance of that decision is to be found. Before the wars in Croatia and Bosnia were finally over, atrocities involving massacres, ethnic cleansing, and the use of rape as a tool of war had been committed by all sides. Nevertheless, two factors suggested that only the Serbs would be held accountable. First, because they were better armed than their enemies, and their paramilitary units were more numerous, Serbs had committed the greatest number of acts of atrocity, including the now-infamous massacre at Srebrenica. Second, it was the Serbian attacks during the summer of 1995 on three of the six “safe haven” cities the United Nations had created in Bosnia that prompted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to take the long-deferred, decisive military action against the Serb artillery that in turn ultimately forced Bosnian Serbs and Belgrade to recognize Bosnia’s independence.

The fact that the notables indicted immediately after the war for war crimes were all Serbs and that the cases initially decided by the ICTY all involved alleged Serbian acts against humanity seemed to confirm the widely held belief among Serbs that they were being unfairly targeted by the international community. The Lasva Valley cases in general and the decision in the first of these, the Ahnici village case, in particular objectively rebutted that thesis. In the case of Ahnici, not Serbs but Croats were charged with violating the customs of war and with crimes against humanity for persecuting people on racial and religious grounds and committing inhuman acts.

Moreover, the majority of the defendants were convicted for their actions despite the fact that they were following orders from their superiors. Indeed, the heaviest sentence, twenty-five years, was given to the Jokers’ commander in part because he passed on those orders, and all were held accountable even though Judge Cassese acknowledged in handing down the sentences that “the major culprits . . . who ordered and planned” the atrocities were not in his courtroom at the time. (The commanding officer had been tried separately and was awaiting the outcome when the Ahnici verdict came in.)

In the longer term, the Ahnici village case was significant in other ways as well. The meticulousness with which the case moved through the ICTY’s legal process underscored the fairness of the international tribunal’s work, and in doing so it helped lay a foundation for the creation of the permanent International Criminal Court established as of July 1, 2002, by international ratification of the Rome Statute.

Eight men were initially indicted for the Ahnici massacre, but before the case went to trial two of the indictments were dismissed, in one instance because one of the defendants died while awaiting trial but in the other because of the court’s finding that there was insufficient evidence to warrant trial. Likewise, when the verdicts came down, one of the defendants, Dragan Papic, was acquitted because the evidence linking him to the war crimes was weak. Most revealing, the guilty verdicts were reached only after a proceeding that stretched over 111 trial days and entailed the testimony of 160 witnesses and presentation of 717 exhibits. Finally, each of those judged guilty was entitled to appeal. All eventually exercised that right, and the Kupreskic trio had their verdicts reversed on the basis of the insufficient nature of the evidence presented against them. The appeals of the other two were only partially allowed, however, and their sentences only modestly reduced—from twenty-five years to eighteen for Santic, and from fifteen years to twelve for Josipovic. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Ahnici massacre Massacres;Ahnici Muslims;Bosnia and Herzegovina Yugoslavia;human rights abuses United Nations;international courts

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cousens, Elizabeth M. Toward Peace in Bosnia: Implementing the Dayton Accords. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2001. Excellent, brief account of the difficulty of rebuilding Bosnia after the civil war. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dyker, D. A., and I. Vejvoda, eds. Yugoslavia and After: A Study in Fragmentation, Despair, and Rebirth. New York: Longman, 1996. Collection of essays written in the immediate aftermath of the Dayton Accords provides gripping description of both the collapse of Yugoslavia and early efforts to revive its war-torn parts. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Honig, Jan Willem, and Norbert Both. Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Presents a brief but compelling account of the worst massacre in the Bosnian civil war. Includes maps and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silber, Laura, and Allan Little. Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. Provides one of the best brief accounts of the topic available. Published as a companion volume to a Discovery Channel television series. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stedman, John. “The New Interventionists.” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 1 (1993): 1-15. Presents, for general audiences as well as scholars, an excellent description of the changing nature of international peacekeeping. Foreign Affairs is considered to be the most authoritative journal published on U.S. foreign policy.

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