Judges at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague have convicted three Bosnian Serbs of persecuting Muslims and Croats. The three, whose crimes were committed in the northern Bosnian region of Bosanski Samac early in the Bosnian war, received sentences ranging from six to 17 years.

The stiffest prison sentence, 17 years, was handed down to Dr. Blagoje Simic, who headed Bosanski Samac's municipal government when Serbs overran the area in 1992.

Presiding Judge Florence Mumba explained why.

"As the most important civilian leader in the municipality, Dr. Blagoje Simic had a particular responsibility toward the entire population," she said. "The trial chamber also accepts that the victims' vulnerable position as held in detention and the fact that as a medical doctor, Dr. Blagoje Simic was well aware of their sufferings constitutes aggravating circumstances."

Instead of protecting civilians, Judge Mumba said, Simic was at the apex of a joint criminal enterprise. Its purpose was to take over power and force the non-Serbs to leave forever.

They did that, judges ruled, through a widespread and systematic campaign of persecution against non-Serbs. The persecution included unlawful arrest and torture, such as sexual assault and the extraction of teeth.

The judges also cited cases of forced labor and the forcible transfer of civilians. Before the Serbs took over the strategically important Bosanski Samac, there were 17,000 Muslims and Croats in the area. Afterwards, less than 300 remained.

As for the other accused, former high school teacher Miroslav Tadic was sentenced to eight years for his role in prisoner exchanges, and Simo Zaric - once the town's police chief - was sentenced to six years in prison.

The tribunal found that Zaric aided and abetted the persecutions through his interrogation of prisoners.

But freedom for Tadic and Zaric could come sooner rather than later. They have already been in custody for six years, and they could apply for immediate release.