International judges handed down long prison sentences to five senior political, military and police officials in the government of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic for their roles in the 1999 war in Kosovo. But the court acquitted Milan Milutinovic, the wartime Serbian president, who had the highest rank of the men on trial but who was effectively a figurehead.
The trial held special significance as the closest that an international criminal court was likely to come to judging the actions of the Milosevic government in Kosovo, a breakaway Serbian province. Milosevic died in 2006 before the end of his own trial before the same court, the UN War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
The Kosovo war pitted Serbian forces against an ethnic Albanian separatist guerrilla group and led to a nearly three-month bombing campaign by NATO in 1999 aimed at stopping the conflict.
NATO called it a humanitarian intervention. Its airstrikes, which drew both support and criticism, stopped after Serbian forces agreed to withdraw from Kosovo.
NATO’s bombing campaign was criticized by some Western lawyers and Russian politicians, who subsequently demanded that the tribunal charge NATO with war crimes as well. They said roughly 300 Serbs were killed by NATO bombs in such episodes as the bombing of a bridge as a passenger train was crossing, an attack on a refugee convoy and a strike against a Serbian television building in Belgrade.
NATO spokesmen at the time said that NATO officers had gone to great lengths to minimize civilian deaths, and Carla Del Ponte, the tribunal prosecutor, said that there was no evidence of a systematic attack on civilians by NATO.
Serbia has long argued that civilians in Kosovo were fleeing the bombing, not the atrocities that the men on trial in The Hague stood accused of ordering. But Judge Ian Bonomy, the Scottish jurist who read the summary, said that “none of the witnesses cited NATO bombing” as a reason for their flight.
In addition to endorsing NATO’s assertion that the refugees fled Serbian forces, the panel of judges came close to a guilty verdict for Milosevic.
Citing their reasons for acquitting Milutinovic, the judges said that in practice “it was Milosevic, sometimes termed the supreme commander, who exercised actual command authority” over Serbian troops and security police officers in 1999.
The judges convicted the five others for their roles in “a broad campaign of violence directed against the Kosovo Albanian population,” which at the time made up 90 percent of Kosovo.
They said Serbia had initiated a state-organized campaign to keep control over Kosovo through deporting or forcibly transferring a large part of the population of about 2 million.
At least 700,000 ethnic Albanians were expelled across the borders into Albania and other neighboring countries, and many were mistreated, killed, robbed, raped or had their houses burned and their identity papers confiscated, the court summary said.
Nikola Sainovic, the former Yugoslav deputy prime minister and “one of the closest and most trusted Milosevic associates,” according to the court, was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
A former army general, Nebojsa Pavkovic, and the former chief of the Serbian security police, General Sreten Lukic, were also given 22-year sentences. All three were found guilty of deportation, forcible transfer, murder and persecution.