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Bosnian Serb Camp Commander Sentenced to 23 Years - 2003-12-18

A Bosnian Serb prison camp commander who admitted to murdering and torturing Muslims under his watch has been sentenced to 23 years in prison by war crimes judges in The Hague. The tribunal found the crimes of Dragon Nikolic, who pleaded guilty earlier this year, worthy of a life sentence. But, the judges reduced his punishment because of his confession and remorse.

Judges called the crimes committed by Dragan Nikolic enormously brutal. The former metal worker commanded the Susica prison camp in eastern Bosnia, a place where some 8,000 Muslims and other non-Serbs passed through in 1992. They were held in inhumane conditions - murdered, raped, and tortured. And it was Nikolic, said Judge Wolfgang Schomburg, who served as a kind of god: the prisoners, he said, lived and died by his hand and his will.

"Not one single day and night at the camp passed by without Dragan Nikolic and others committing barbarous acts," said Judge Schomburg. "The accused brutally and sadistically beat the detainees. He would kick and punch them and use weapons such as iron bars, ax handles, rifle butts, metal knuckles, metal pipes, truncheons, rubber tubing with lead inside, lengths of wood and wooden bats to beat the detainees. One of the most chilling aspects of these acts was the enjoyment he derived from this criminal conduct."

Nikolic admitted he personally murdered nine people and tortured another five. He especially abused his power, the court found, when it came to women. He routinely picked them out from the camp and handed them over to men he knew would rape or otherwise assault them.

And he further degraded them at his whim, making them wash and rub cream into his feet. Judges said the inmates were akin to slaves, their torture so bad that it basically amounts to attempted murder.

Nikolic was the first man indicted by this tribunal nine years ago.

Although on the run for six years before being arrested - and then denying the charges in court - Nikolic eventually pleaded guilty to murder, rape, persecution and torture.

Prosecutors asked for a 15-year sentence. But judges, citing what they called the systematic sadism of Nikolic's crimes, said that wouldn't be just. They said Nikolic would have received a life sentence if it hadn't been for his guilty plea, remorse and cooperation with prosecutors. And they noted that the crimes he admitted to were the first public account of what took place at Susica, helping to establish the truth of what happened there.

But in handing down Nikolic's 23-year sentence, the court said there were simply too many victims and too many crimes committed over too long a time.