Bosnian commander acquitted of war crimes in Srebrenica

Appeals chamber in Bosnia finds 'defender of Srebrenica' not guilty of the killing of three Serb prisoners of war.

    Naser Oric leaves court in Sarajevo on October 9, 2017 [File: Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images]
    Naser Oric leaves court in Sarajevo on October 9, 2017 [File: Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images]

    Former Bosnian military commander Naser Oric, hailed by his supporters as the heroic "defender of Srebrenica", has been acquitted by an appeals chamber of Bosnia's war crimes court.

    Oric was acquitted on Friday of human rights violations and the killings of three Serb prisoners of war in and around Srebrenica during the war in Bosnia between 1992-1995.

    Oric, regarded as a hero by Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), led the defence of Srebrenica, a besieged town that eventually fell to Bosnian Serb forces in 1995, who then systematically killed more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.

    The revised verdict was delivered after the court in June revoked its previous ruling, clearing Oric and fellow soldier Sabahudin Muhic of guilt, and ordered a new trial after the prosecutor complained of criminal procedures violations.

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    The appeals chamber found discrepancies in the statements of a key protected witness and "could not find them credible and establish beyond a reasonable doubt the responsibility" of Oric and Muhic for the alleged crimes, said judge Tihomir Lukes.

    The verdict, which is final and cannot be appealed, sparked mixed reactions in a country deeply divided along ethnic lines.

    While the ethnic Serbs slammed the verdict as an "amnesty for war crimes", the Muslims welcomed the "final victory of justice".

    Awaiting the verdict, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Sarajevo court, carrying banners that read: "Heroes, not criminals!"

    Oric's supporters outside the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo [Samir Yordamovic/Anadolu]

    Branislav Dukic, head of an association of Bosnian Serb prisoners of war, said the ruling was shameful.

    "All Serbs should leave the state judiciary in response," he said.

    The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague acquitted Oric of war crimes against Serbs in 2008, but he was arrested again in June 2015 in Switzerland on a warrant from Serbia accusing him of killing three Bosnian Serb prisoners of war early in the conflict.

    Many ethnic Serbs perceive Oric as a "butcher" responsible for crimes during attacks on their villages in the Srebrenica area to drive them out of their homes.

    Some see the condemnation of Oric as essential for reconciliation in Bosnia.

    But for Bosniak Kada Hotic, who belongs to "Mothers of Srebrenica" group, such a verdict would be a "shame and insult for [Muslim] victims".

    Her son, husband and two brothers were killed in the Srebrenica genocide in 1995.

    "The Serbs want Naser Oric to be condemned, believing that his condemnation could alleviate [their guilt for] the genocide that they committed in Srebrenica," she said.

    During the war, the United Nations declared Srebrenica a "safe area", but Dutch troops failed to prevent its capture by Bosnian Serb forces.

    Bosnian Muslims make up half of the country's population of 3.5 million, while ethnic Serbs and Croats account for about 30 and 15 percent respectively.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies