THE HAGUE, Netherlands – THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Two Bosnian Serbs were convicted of genocide and sentenced to life imprisonment Thursday for the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica — the harshest judgment ever delivered by the U.N. war crimes tribunal on the Balkan wars.
A third Bosnian Serb officer was given a 35-year prison sentence for aiding and abetting genocide. Two others were acquitted of genocide charges but convicted of extermination, murder and persecution, while a final two officers were found guilty of lesser charges of war crimes. Sentences for those four ranged from five to 19 years.
It was a dramatic conclusion to the largest trial conducted by the tribunal, set up in 1993 to prosecute the worst war crimes offenders even while fighting was still under way among ethnic groups in the disintegrating Yugoslavia.
The slaughter of the Muslim men and boys around Srebrenica was the worst massacre on European soil since World War II. Tens of thousands of Muslim civilians were evicted from their homes in that area in what the U.N. court has called a deliberate attempt to wipe out the Muslim community there.
Thursday's verdict could indirectly affect another trial, that of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, which began last year following his capture in Belgrade in 2008. Karadzic, a key figure throughout the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, also is accused of genocide for the Srebrenica slaughter.
Judges on Thursday wrote that the defendants' most brutal crimes were carried out under a directive issued by Karadzic to create "an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival" for the Srebrenica population.
Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara, convicted of the worst crime in the war crimes statute, were high-ranking security officers with the Bosnian Serb army that overran Muslim forces and thinly armed U.N. troops in the Srebrenica enclave. Drago Nikolic, convicted of aiding and abetting genocide, was a brigade security commander.
All three served under Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander who remains a fugitive 15 years after his indictment.
It was not clear Thursday whether any of the verdicts or sentences would be appealed.
Natasa Kandic, a prominent human rights activist who has investigated war crimes in the Balkans, said the convictions were "extremely important" for the case against Karadzic, and for future trials against lower-ranking suspects believed to be living in Serbia.
"All those facts determined by the court are important for the trials," Kandic said in Belgrade.
Kadira Gabeljic, who lost two sons, her husband and her brother in the Srebrenica massacre, met the verdicts with resignation.
"Whatever the sentence is, it's not enough, although these two that got life, that's all right I guess," said Gabeljic. "These people committed such horrific crimes that history will remember them."
She said the bones of her menfolk were scattered by Serb bulldozers and added that she fears she will die before the remains of her children are found.
In Pale, the capital of the Bosnian Serb ministate, the judgment was seen as further evidence of the tribunal's bias against ethnic Serbs, since the vast majority of the its 161 indictments have been against Serbs or Bosnian Serbs.
"It's a political court. It sends only Serbs to prison," said retired mathematic professor, Krsto Removic.
The judges ruled that Popovic, the chief of security for the Drina Corps, organized and watched the execution of prisoners at a school in Orahovac.
"(He) knew that the intent was not just to kill those who had fallen into the hands of Bosnian Serb forces, but to kill as many as possible," the judgment said.
His "robust participation" showed that he shared the intention of destroying the Muslim community — the key requirement for a genocide conviction.
Popovic shook his head in denial as the decision of the three judges was read out in court.
Beara coordinated the murder of Muslim prisoners and organized their mass burials, the judgment said.
"Beara had a very personal view of the staggering number of victims destined for execution," it said. He "was intent on destroying a group by killing all the members of it within his reach."
The court has convicted only one other person, Gen. Radislav Kristic, of genocide, but his 2001 conviction was overturned on appeal and reduced to aiding and abetting genocide.
Associated Press writers Radul Radovanovic contributed to this report from Sarajevo and Pale, Bosnia, and Dusan Stojanovic from Belgrade.
(This version CORRECTS to five year sentence stead four in 2nd graf.)