Retrial starts for Serbs charged with Balkan war atrocities

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Two former allies of the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic played key roles in facilitating atrocities by notorious Serb paramilitaries in Croatia and Bosnia as Belgrade tried to carve out an ethnically homogenous "Greater Serbia" during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia, a prosecutor said Tuesday as the two men's United Nations retrial began.

Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic were originally acquitted in 2013 by judges who said there was insufficient evidence linking them to the crimes. Appeals judges, however, quashed the not-guilty verdicts in 2015 and ordered the retrial that is taking place in a courtroom of the U.N. Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.

Prosecutor Douglas Stringer told the three-judge panel that Serb forces used a campaign of murder, persecution and forced expulsions of non-Serbs throughout the Balkan wars from 1991-1995 as a way of establishing Serb regions in Croatia and Bosnia.

"These accused made these crimes happen through their direction and unflagging support to the Serb forces used to commit them," Stringer said.

Stanisic was head of Serbia's state security service until Milosevic fired him in 1998. Simatovic was Stanisic's right hand man. Prosecutors allege that they were part of a criminal organization, headed by Milosevic, which aimed to drive non-Serbs out of parts of Bosnia and Croatia.

Their acquittals in 2013 were welcomed in Belgrade as they effectively distanced Serbia from crimes committed in Bosnia and Croatia. Milosevic also was tried by the United Nations for his role, but died in his cell in The Hague in 2006 before verdicts could be delivered.

Legal experts, meanwhile, said the verdicts significantly raised the threshold for holding commanders responsible for the crimes of their subordinates by saying they could be convicted only if their actions were specifically directed to assisting a crime.

However, jurisprudence at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which hosted the original trial, has since stated that "specific direction" is not a necessary element of aiding and abetting a crime.

The case that opened Tuesday is likely to be one of the last major international trials focusing on the Balkan wars. The ICTY is winding down as it completes its final cases, including the trial of former Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic, which is expected to end by November this year. Mladic is awaiting verdicts on charges including two counts of genocide for leading Bosnian Serb forces throughout Bosnia's war.