War Crimes Tribunal Sentences Croat to 10 Years

THE HAGUE -- A UN war-crimes tribunal on Friday sentenced a Croat who confessed to taking part in the Bosnian Serb Army massacre of over 1,200 unarmed Moslems at Srebrenica to 10 years in jail.

Drazen Erdemovic, 25, is the first person to be sentenced by the Hague-based UN criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia and the first sentenced by an international war-crimes tribunal since the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials after World War Two.

Charged with crimes against humanity, he pleaded guilty in May to being a member of the Serb army's execution squad that carried out the killings after Serbs overran the United Nations "safe haven" in July 1995.

"Trial Chamber One ... sentences Drazen Erdemovic ... to 10 years imprisonment," presiding Judge Claude Jorda of France announced, adding that the jail term would be back-dated to include Erdemovic's eight months in tribunal custody.

In passing sentence, Jorda said the three-judge panel had noted the accused's age, his low military rank, his remorse and his "full and unconditional" cooperation with prosecutors.

Erdemovic sat impassively throughout the 45-minute reading and after the verdict shook hands and spoke briefly with his lawyer, Jovan Babic.

The 10-year term was the maximum demanded by prosecutors who had asked for leniency after the accused had confessed, shown remorse and provided valuable information about war crimes.

Babic, who said Erdemovic would appeal the sentence, had argued that the ex-soldier should be acquitted because he had been forced to take part in the summary execution of Moslems under threat of death.

A tribunal spokesman said it could take several weeks to decide where Erdemovic would serve his sentence, with no prospect of parole, but the likeliest options appeared to be Italy, Finland or Norway.

Erdemovic, a Croat who served in the Serb army, was the first Bosnian Serb military insider to publicly testify about events at Srebrenica.

He was arrested in Belgrade in March after telling a French newspaper that he had personally killed 70 Moslems during the mass execution.

In his guilty plea, Erdemovic said Moslems were bussed to Branjevo farm at Pilica, some 70 kilometers north of Srebrenica, where they were shot in groups of 10.

He insisted that he had no choice but to take part in the five-hour killing spree as the officer in charge had threatened to kill him if he did not carry out the order. Prosecutors admit that Erdemovic would have remained a "faceless, nameless executioner" and the tribunal may never have unveiled the Pilica massacre if Erdemovic himself had not spoken out.

The young Croat also testified at public hearings in July against deposed Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and former military chief General Ratko Mladic, both of whom have been charged with genocide for the killings after the fall of Srebrenica. Both remain at large.

At the earlier hearings, Erdemovic spoke of his regret at the deaths on all sides of the war in Bosnia.

"I have lost many good friends of many nationalities ... They were not in favor of war ... they simply had no other choice. This war came and there was no way out, and the same happened to me," he said.