Early Morning Attack
If Nuremberg was tarnished by the stain of "victor's justice," the ICTY set out to show that it could prosecute not just Serbian forces for war crimes in Bosnia. One of the first and most notorious cases for the court was the massacre that Sakib Ahmic witnessed in 1993.
In the early morning hours of April 16, 1993, heavily armed men in camouflage attacked Ahmici, a tiny village in the rolling farmland of central Bosnia where Muslims and Croats lived. The men did not attack the whole village, only homes of Muslims. Within hours, some 100 civilians were slaughtered men, women, children and the elderly. Numerous witnesses would later testify that the attacking soldiers wore the insignia of the Bosnian Croat army, known by its acronym HVO.
After the massacre, a mosque in Ahmici lay in crumble. Click here to view a slideshow. Photo: © Gilles Peress
courtesy of the Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley
British UN troops, who were sent to Bosnia to assist aid deliveries but found themselves caught in the middle of internecine battles between Croats and Muslims in central Bosnia, discovered burnt out homes and carbonized bodies inside. Some of the dead were children who appeared to have been burned alive. According to the United Nations, some 20 other villages in the region were attacked on the same day by Bosnian Croat forces. Television crews, escorted to the village by the UN, beamed images of the massacre around the globe, showing that Serbian troops were not the only side committing atrocities in Bosnia.
Ahmici's surviving Muslims, many of whom share the same name as the village, fled Croat-controlled areas soon after the attack. Most survivors went to the nearby city of Zenica, which was controlled by government forces throughout the Bosnian war. They included Sakib Ahmic, who was seriously burned in the rampage but managed to escape through a window.
As the newly formed Hague tribunal decided to move beyond investigations of Serbian forces, ICTY investigators were dispatched to central Bosnia to examine the Muslim-Croat violence. In 1995, prosecutors indicted 15 Bosnian Croats-soldiers, commanders and politicians-for killings and deportations of Muslims. A key element in the indictment was the attack on Ahmici.
Two Strategies: Big Fish and Small Fish
In the indictments of the Bosnian Croats, there were two types of defendants and two types of trials: the higher-ups, who either ordered the attacks, or should have punished the men responsible and the ground level gunmen, who did the killing.
Prosecutor Albert Moskowitz had the job of going after some of the low-level perpetrators at Ahmici: Sakib Ahmic's neighbors.
"This was an eyewitness case," says Moskowitz. " We had to establish that Sakib and the other witnesses could identify in court(that) the people that they're accusing were in their homes five years earlier, shooting and killing everybody."
Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic maintained their innocence. The defense argued Sakib Ahmic's testimony was unreliable because he did not name the brothers when investigators first spoke to him. Ahmic claimed he was too frightened. The defense also pointed out that bullet casings found at the scene did not match the kind of weapon Sakib described the Kupreskic brothers carrying. Prosecutor Albert Moskowitz grew worried.
All his eyewitnesses were Muslims. No Croats stepped forward to tell what they saw, even though some Croats remained in the village during the attack.
"What we didn't have and what we desperately needed were folks from the other side," Moskowitz recalls. "One of the great frustrations in doing a case like this at the tribunal was that the factions are so polarized that it was virtually impossible to get a person from the Croat community to come in and say, yes, this is what happened. And in any case like this that's what you need for a conviction."
The trial of the Kupreskic brothers would grind on for nearly two years. The parallel cases against senior Bosnian Croat officials responsible for the region around Ahmici were also unfolding. In going after these so-called "big fish," prosecutors used a much different strategy.
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