International criminal appeals tribunal, led by Theodor Meron, more than triples sentence of Serbian army officer

Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, led by Presiding Judge Theodor Meron, more than triples prison sentence of Serbian army officer

On May 5, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, led by Presiding Judge Theodor Meron, Charles L. Denison Professor of Law Emeritus and Judicial Fellow, more than tripled the prison sentence of a senior Serbian army officer linked to the torture and execution of 194 Croatian prisoners of war in 1991.

Veselin Šljivančanin, a former senior officer of the Yugoslav People’s Army, had been sentenced to five years in prison for torturing and mistreating the prisoners he was responsible for protecting, but the Appeals Chamber ruled that he was also guilty of aiding and abetting their executions and extended his sentence to 17 years. In considering the adequacy of the five-year sentence imposed on Šljivančanin, the Appeals Chamber weighed the gravity of the crimes and the consequences of torture upon the victims and their families.

“These crimes were characterized by extreme cruelty and brutality towards the prisoners of war, some of whom may have been previously injured as they had been taken from the Vukovar hospital,” Meron said in reading a summary of the Appeals Chamber’s judgment in court. The Appeals Chamber also found that in the hours leading up to the executions, Šljivančanin had followed illegal orders to withdraw army units that were protecting the prisoners and that he should have disobeyed those orders. “The only reasonable inference,” Meron said, is that he was aware that the Serbian paramilitary groups left in control “would likely kill the prisoners.”

According to the New York Times, this ruling is significant because this is the first case in which a U.N. tribunal focused on the fate of a group formally defined as prisoners of war who were entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention. The Croatian prisoners who were executed were formally recognized as prisoners of war as part of a regional agreement with the Serbian forces and their status was supposed to be monitored by international observers under the Third Geneva Convention.

The Appeals Chamber also upheld a 20-year sentence for Šljivančanin’s superior, Mile Mrkšić, who gave the orders to withdraw the army protection from the prisoners and who let the paramilitary groups take over.