Showdown in Courtroom Two
The scene: Courtroom Two at the United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague. Three men face each other. The witness is a small, gray-haired man named Sakib Ahmic. He is a Bosnian Muslim. Among the accused are two neatly-dressed brothers in their 30s named Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic. They are ethnic Croats. Between the men stands American prosecutor Albert Moskowitz. It is the end of an exhausting day in the opening of a legal process that will run three years.
Moskowitz asks witness Ahmic whether he can identify the two brothers Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic. Ahmic identifies both men.
"Were these the two men who were in your house on April 16, 1993 while your family was killed before your eyes," asks the prosecutor.
Sulejman Pezer, a survivor of the Ahmici massacre, holds a photograph taken on the day of the attack by United Nations personnel. Click here to view the photo. Photo: M. Montgomery / American RadioWorks
The elderly witness stands and points to the accused men twenty-five feet across the courtroom. His hand quivers.
"Yes," he says.
The trial judge asks Sakib Ahmic to take his seat.
At the defense table, Mirjan Kupreskic is devastated.
"All along I thought he might say something like we resembled the attackers," he recalls. "(But) when he pointed to us and said those are the killers of my children, it's like my legs were cut from under me. I couldn't believe it."
From the trial's opening in 1998, Mirjan and Zoran Kupreskic denied they were involved in the murder of Sakib Ahmic's family.
"I was very good friends with Sakib's son Nasir," says Mirjan. "And when Nasir's son was born, he came over to our place with drinks to honor his new child. Can you imagine that three months later they're dead and I'm accused of their murder?"
Prosecutor Albert Moskowitz, who came to The Hague from the U.S. Justice Department, was satisfied with Sakib Ahmic's testimony.
"It was a very emotional and difficult moment for Sakib to look at the murderers of his son, at the murders of his grandkid, Seho, he was shot to death in his crib, and look them in the eye and say you're the people who did this. And Sakib really believes this," says Moskowitz.
Many survivors who testify in The Hague do so in secret to protect their safety when they return home. But Sakib Ahmic chose to speak in open session, explaining that he wanted the world to hear his story.
"Who should I fear to tell the truth?" Ahmic told the court. "I'm not afraid of anyone anymore. And I shall never be afraid of anyone any more. All those who did that (participated in the attack)…they should fear me."
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was created to make moments like this possible. The court is meant to be a place where victims of a war can seek justice when the courts in their own country fail to prosecute war crimes.
Three miles from Ahmici is a monument to a World War II concentration camp run by Croatian fascists. The plaque notes that 97 civilians, including Serbs and Gypsies, were murdered at the site in 1941. Photo: M. Montgomery / American RadioWorks
Thousands of witnesses have testified since the ICTY was created in 1993. The ICTY was the first international war crimes court established since Nazi and Japanese leaders were tried at Nuremberg and Tokyo after the Second World War. But unlike those courts, The Hague tribunal was established in the midst of war. The UN hoped that punishing individuals for war crimes would deter more atrocities. Once the fighting was over, the court was meant to promote reconciliation and the rule of law.
Graham Blewitt, the ICTY's deputy prosecutor, was prosecuting former Nazis in his native Australia when he joined the tribunal soon after it was established.
"All the lawyers and prosecutors here have closely researched the various Nuremberg judgments and incorporate them into their own proceedings," says Blewitt.
Blewitt has seen the court grow from a staff of five to nearly 1,000 people and annual budget of around $100 million. In 1994, the UN created a second war crimes court for Rwanda.
Despite the vastly improved resources, the tribunals have only convicted several dozen war criminals. That leaves thousands of suspects walking free in the Balkans. Are the prosecutions of a select group of suspects enough to fulfill the tribunal's ambitious mandate? Can any court deter new violence and foster reconciliation?
Next: Early Morning Attack