ICTY upholds Genocide Convictions in Srebrenica Case

by Jens David Ohlin

Today, the ICTY Appeals Chamber affirmed genocide convictions in the Srebrenica case, Prosecutor v. Popović et al. The full Appeals Chamber judgment is here.  The PDF document is 792 pages (including a few short dissents), which is long-ish but certainly not extraordinary by ICTY judgment standards.

In my opinion, the most critical part of the judgment relates to the connection between the defendants, their Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE), and the perpetrators who actually performed the killings. As you will recall, back in the old days when the JCE doctrine was first brought to fruition in the Tadic case, the assumption was that the court would convict defendants who were part of the same JCE as the perpetrators who performed the actual killings. Later ICTY judgments “de-linked” leadership-level defendants from the relevant physical perpetrators and held that a conviction for JCE did not require that the defendants and the perpetrators were part of the same JCE. This opened up a big question: what link between the defendants and the perpetrators was required in order to convict under the JCE doctrine? Furthermore, what doctrine would justify imposing liability on the defendants when the JCE doctrine was insufficient by itself to establish the link between the defendants and the physical perpetrators. What standard would be used to evaluate the required link?  I was hoping that the Popović judgment would resolve these questions definitively, but it does not appear to have done so.

Here is the relevant paragraphs in the judgment regarding one set of killings:

1065. The Appeals Chamber observes that the Trial Chamber considered that the fact that killings occurred in July 1995, after the fall of Srebrenica, and that the victims were Bosnian Muslim men from Srebrenica, were sufficient to link the Trnovo killings to the common purpose of the JCE to Murder. The Prosecution correctly points out that the principal perpetrator of a given crime need not be a member of the JCE and that it must be determined whether the crime in question forms part of the common purpose. The Appeals Chamber reiterates that: to hold a member of a JCE responsible for crimes committed by non-members of the enterprise, it has to be shown that the crime can be imputed to one member of the joint criminal enterprise, and that this member – when using a principal perpetrator – acted in accordance with the common plan. The Appeals Chamber does not consider the Trial Chamber’s finding to satisfy this requirement. The Appeals Chamber, Judge Niang dissenting, therefore finds that the Trial Chamber’s failure to further elaborate on this link amounts to a failure to provide a reasoned opinion. In view of the Trial Chamber’s error of law, the Appeals Chamber will consider whether the factual findings in the Trial Judgement as a whole would allow a reasonable trier of fact to establish a link between the members of the Scorpions Unit and a member of the JCE to Murder.

1066. Although insufficient on their own to establish a link, the Appeals Chamber notes that the Trnovo killings share certain features with other crimes committed in furtherance of the common plan, namely that the victims were Bosnian Muslim men from Srebrenica, the killings occurred “in July 1995, after the fall of Srebrenica”, and the victims were lined up and shot with automatic rifles.

1067. As previously discussed, one way to establish the required link would be to demonstrate that in the lead up to the Trnovo killings, the Scorpions Unit co-operated with the VRS, either directly or through the MUP forces, with respect to the custody or control of the prisoners killed in Trnovo. In this regard, the Prosecution asserts it is reasonable to infer that the Bosnian Muslim men killed in Trnovo were captured by or surrendered to the BSF who then handed them over to the Scorpions Unit. The Appeals Chamber observes, however, that the Trial Chamber, having considered and rejected similar arguments, concluded that “₣ağny inference that there was coordination with the VRS Main Staff is speculation”. In reaching this conclusion, the Trial Chamber rejected the Prosecution’s arguments that: (1) the Bosnian Muslim men were arrested in the Drina Corps’ zone of responsibility; (2) the logistics of their transport would have required VRS Main Staff involvement; and (3) the Scorpions Unit would have been unable to take any actions without orders from the BSF and the MUP in Trnovo. The Trial Chamber also took into consideration that it was not presented with evidence: (1) indicating that the six men were detained in the Drina Corps’ zone of responsibility; (2) shedding light on the men’s journey from Srebrenica to the Trnovo area; or (3) indicating that there was any VRS Main Staff involvement in the six men coming into the custody of the Scorpions Unit. The Appeals Chamber is not persuaded that the Trial Chamber’s conclusion – that to infer co-ordination between the Scorpions Unit and the VRS Main Staff would be speculative – is undermined by either the evidence that the six Trnovo victims were last seen along the route of the column between Bratunac and Nova Kasaba, or that other Bosnian Muslim men from the column were captured by or surrendered to the BSF stationed along the Bratunac-Konjevi} Polje Road.

1068. In submitting that the Scorpions Unit and MUP forces were closely co-ordinated during the relevant time period, the Prosecution relies on evidence that demonstrates that: (1) the Scorpions Unit was deployed in Trnovo from late June through at least the end of July 1995; (2) on 1 July 1995, Borovcanin reported on activities on the Trnovo battlefield, including on an attack involving the Scorpions Unit; (3) Borovcanin was in Trnovo on the Sarajevo front until he was resubordinated on 10 July 1995; (4) a mixed company of joint Republic of Serbian Krajina (“RSK”), Serbian and RS MUP forces was among the units under Borovcanin’s command when he was resubordinated and that during the night of 10 July 1995 this mixed company was to withdraw from the Trnovo battlefield and assemble in front of the Public Security Station (“SJB”) in Bratunac by noon the following day; and (5) upon arrival in Bratunac, Borovcanin was to report to Krstic.3113 This circumstantial evidence suggests that Borovcanin worked with the Scorpions Unit and the VRS Sarajevo-Romanija Corps while he was in Trnovo. However, when considered alongside the Trial Chamber’s finding that the only evidence about the whereabouts of the mixed company of joint RSK, Serbian, and RS MUP forces after re-subordination was that they did not arrive in Bratunac,the Appeals Chamber is not persuaded that the only reasonable inference available was that Borovcanin continued to co-ordinate with the Scorpions Unit after he was re-subordinated on 10 July 1995. The Appeals Chamber further emphasises that the killings were committed in Trnovo, which although only 150 kilometres from Zvornik, falls within the area of responsibility of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps, rather than the area of responsibility of the Drina Corps like the other crimes. Finally, with respect to the Prosecution’s argument that the BSF continued to search for ABiH soldiers and to capture and kill smaller groups of Bosnian Muslim men fleeing from Srebrenica even after the mass killings were complete, the Appeals Chamber considers that although it demonstrates the continued implementation of the murder operation, it is of limited relevance in showing a link between the Scorpions Unit and a JCE member. The Appeals Chamber, Judge Niang dissenting, therefore considers that a reasonable trier of fact could not have established a link between the members of the Scorpions Unit and a member of the JCE to Murder.

1069. In light of these considerations, the Appeals Chamber, Judge Niang dissenting, considers that a reasonable trier of fact could not have concluded that the members of the JCE were responsible for the Trnovo killings. The Appeals Chamber, Judge Niang dissenting, therefore grants in part Beara’s ground of appeal 17 and Popovic’s appeal in this regard, and reverses their convictions under the following counts to the extent they concern the Trnovo killings: Count 1 (genocide); Count 3 (extermination as a crime against humanity); Count 5 (murder as a violation of the laws or customs of war); and Count 6 (persecution as a crime against humanity).

I do not have an opinion regarding the sufficiency of the evidence and whether the Appeals Chamber should have imputed the killings to the defendants in this case. Rather, I am concerned that the Appeals Chamber did not do enough to establish a particular standard or doctrine to “re-link” perpetrators with killings performed by individuals outside of the JCE. There is nothing close to a standard announced here, but rather the Chamber simply reasserts that there must be some connection in order to justify the imputation. Well yes, but what criminal law doctrine structures that imputation? To me it’s a bit like saying that a defendant in a criminal trial can be punished for someone else’s killing as long as there was some coordination between them, but without specifying whether the defendant is an accomplice, conspirator, instigator, or whatever.

The Chamber performs a fact-intensive inquiry into the matter without any particular doctrine or mode of liability to aid the analysis. It does say that cooperation or coordination would be “one way to establish the link,” and that there was insufficient evidence of such cooperation or coordination in this case. OK, but does that mean that a link could be established in some other way? And if so, what is the overall Dogmatik justification for imputing the criminal actions of non-members to members of the JCE?

Again, I’m not objecting to the result in this case, but rather questioning whether the Appeals Chamber has answered the necessary doctrinal questions and whether they have given sufficient guidance to further Trial Chambers. The results here seem decidedly fact-dependent and, shall we say, under-theorized. 


4 Responses

  1. Once upon a time there was some notion in the commentary that the ICTY was applying some sort of perpetration by means concept in these cases. It’s now obvious from what the Appeals Chamber said in Dordevic that it probably includes such conduct but is not so confined.

    Somewhat bizarrely, in my opinion, the ICC has gone down the opposite route in its construction of the cognate Article 25(3)(d) of its Statute, and has tended to treat the entire root and branch membership of one or even multiple organizations as a single “group of persons acting with a common person”.

  2. A common purpose, rather.

  3. Once again, ICTY has proven its anti-serbian partiality. It is sad to see that this tribunal is like this. The judges and their legal officers were unfair in this judgement.
    We would have wished that the Muslims, Albanians and Croatians who killed the Serbians would have same sentences.
    ICTY had always double standards. It seems nothing has changed.
    ICTY is not a good example at all.
    A justice should never be selective and a fair trial should give the defense enough time and accept all the evidences submitted by the defense.
    Please don’t be betrayed by ITCY.

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