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Bosnian Serb Sentenced to Life in Prison for War Crimes - 2003-07-31

Judges at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal handed down their first life sentence to a Bosnian Serb convicted of extermination, murder, persecution and deportation for the 1992 ethnic cleansing of Prijedor. Former doctor Milomir Stakic was found not guilty of genocide, but judges found his crimes serious enough to send him to prison for life.

Prosecutors didn't get the genocide conviction they were hoping for, but they got their first life sentence, as judges told Milomir Stakic that the crimes he committed were grave and couldn't have happened without him. Stakic listened intently as Judge Schomburg described how more than 1,500 people were killed and 20,000 deported during the 1992 ethnic cleansing of Prijedor when Stakic was the area's leading political authority.

"Despite the comprehensive pattern of atrocities against Muslims in Prijedor in 1992, that have been proven beyond reasonable doubt, and without detracting from its gravity, the trial chamber has not found this to be a case of genocide," said the judge. "Rather it is a serious case of persecutions, extermination and deportation."

Judge Schomburg said while Stakic's goal may not have been to destroy the non-Serb communities, his primary aim was to get rid of them and create a pure Serbian state.

Despite Stakic's insistence that he had nothing to do with the crimes, judges found that, as the former mayor of Prijedor, he was an indispensable co-perpetrator of the ethnic cleansing campaign. He wore a uniform and carried a weapon, and he set up three infamous prison camps - surrounded by land mines - where civilians were regularly killed. Stakic himself, said judges, called the camps a necessity at the time.

The court ruled Stakic had special responsibly for all events in Prijedor and the power to change their course. But he didn't, it said, and for that the man who thought he was above the law deserves life in prison. The judges didn't rule out that what happened in Prijedor could be found to be genocide by another trial chamber.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is now on trial, facing the same genocide charge for Prijedor's ethnic cleansing. Prosecutors have yet to decide if they'll appeal that decision. For now, they say, they're very happy with the first life sentence which they say reflects the gravity of the crimes.