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More Yugoslav War Crime Trials Begin - 2001-09-10

Monday was a busy day at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal. For the first time, three trials began simultaneously. The seven defendants, five Bosnian Serbs and two Bosnian Croats, are charged with crimes against humanity, including persecution. All seven have pleaded not guilty.

Tribunal officials say the arrival of six extra judges in The Hague last week is part of the reason why they're able to speed up proceedings here.

The new judges, who come from countries including Mali, Singapore, and Canada, are here on a case by case basis to help out the tribunal's 14 permanent judges. And all of them were already on the bench on Monday, listening as prosecutors outline the three very different cases against the seven accused.

Courtroom one's proceedings against Bosnian Croat Mladen Naletilic and Vinko Martinovic, also known as Tuta and Stela, got off to a slow start with Tuta's defense lawyer arguing he wasn't ready for trial and asking for a delay. Judges denied that request, leaving prosecutor Kenneth Scott with the floor. He said Tuta, as founder of the special forces unit known as the Convict's Battalion, and his sub-commander, Stela, were involved in ethnic cleansing.

The evidence will show that Mladen Natelic Tuta and his troops, the Convict's Batallion, were right in the thick of it, right where they would so often be in the bloody months ahead, when Bosnian Muslims were thrown out of their homes, when their men were killed, when their property was looted and destroyed, and their prisoners treated brutally and inhumanely.

The crimes allegedly took place in 1993 in the southern Bosnian area of Mostar, where prosecutors say Tuta and his Convict's Battalion were notorious for doing the dirtiest jobs for the Bosnian - Croat and Croatian army. They included combat missions and military attacks, mass expulsions, the burning and looting of property and mosques, and using Muslim prisoners as human shields - all with the aim of creating an ethnically pure Croat entity in Bosnia.

But it was in the southeastern city of Visegrad one year earlier, say prosecutors, that a different ethnic campaign was maybe even more successful. In courtroom two, Bosnian Serb Mitar Vasiljevic is being tried for persecuting and murdering Muslims while he was a member of the White Eagles paramilitary group. Before the war, over half of Visegrad's residents were Muslim. Today, there's not a single one left, and prosecutors say that after Srebrenica, Visegrad has the highest number of people who simply disappeared. Prosecutor Dermot Groome said their tragedy began when they met the accused.

Mitar Vasiljevic is not the most infamous among the Tribunal's indictees, he is no powerful politician accused of the grand plans behind the carnage in Bosnia. He is a simple waiter - one generally liked by Muslims and Serbs alike. But he is one who by his own hands committed an act which is perhaps one of the single most horrific and egregious affronts to humanity in the war, to the most innocent of victims.

Those victims were some 70 Muslims, mostly women and children, who prosecutors say were trying to leave Visegrad. Posing as a Red Cross worker, Mr. Vaseljevic led them to a house where he said they'd be safe. Instead, he and two other men charged with him, burned them alive, shooting at people as they tried to escape through the windows. Five people managed to survive. They will come to The Hague to testify against Mr. Vaseljevic, who says he wasn't there when the fire was set. There will also be other survivors - two Muslim men who survived a mass execution along the Drina River.

The third case that opened Monday is another alleged case of ethnic cleansing, this one carried out in 1992 by four Bosnian Serbs in the Northern region of Bosanski Samac. Prosecutors say they all held high civilian or military positions. Bosanski Samac's former police chief, Stefan Todorovic, has already pleaded guilty to persecution in the case and won't be tried. Instead, he'll be called to testify against his former co-accused in the coming weeks.