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U.N. court trims sentences of Serbs over Kosovo atrocities

AP

Three high-ranking Serb political, military and police officials had their sentences trimmed Thursday for atrocities in Kosovo, but Yugoslav war crimes tribunal appeals judges left in place key elements of a lower court’s finding that leaders in Belgrade orchestrated crimes against humanity there in 1999.

In a lengthy and complex appeals decision, judges at the U.N. court overturned parts of the convictions of the four and cut their sentences.

Nikola Sainovic, Nebojsa Pavkovic, Sreten Lukic and Vladimir Lazarevic were convicted by the tribunal in 2009 for crimes committed against Kosovo Albanians during Serbia’s deadly crackdown on ethnic Albanians in 1999. Former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic was acquitted at trial and prosecutors didn’t appeal.

Sainovic had his 22-year sentence reduced to 18 years, Lukic’s 22-year sentence was trimmed by two years and Lazarevic had his 15-year term cut by a year. Judges left Pavkovic’s 22-year sentence in place.

“Given my disbelief in this tribunal, I am very happy that Mr. Sainovic got his sentence reduced by four years,” Sainovic’s lawyer, Toma Fila, said. “That means he will be home next year.”

At the time of the 1999 crackdown in Kosovo, Sainovic was deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia, Pavkovic was commander of the Third Army of Yugoslavia, Lazarevic commanded the Pristina Corps of the Yugoslav army and Lukic led the interior ministry and police in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, declared itself an independent state in 2008.

The trial verdicts came close to posthumously convicting former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, with the tribunal calling him the most powerful commander of Serb troops and military police that carried out a campaign of murder, rape and deportations that forced nearly 800,000 ethnic Albanians to flee Kosovo before NATO airstrikes forced a Serb withdrawal in mid-1999.

Thursday’s appeals judgment underscored disagreements among the top echelon of judges at the court over legal issues underpinning some of its key recent decisions, most notably the acquittal on appeal of former Yugoslav army chief of staff Gen. Momcilo Perisic.

Perisic was cleared in February last year of aiding and abetting atrocities by rebel Serbs, including the Srebrenica massacre, by providing them with military aid during the Balkan wars. He had been convicted and sentenced to 27 years in 2011.

It had long been known that Belgrade provided arms and other equipment to Bosnian Serb forces, but the appeals chamber said the aid was for the Bosnian Serb “war effort” and prosecutors failed to prove it was given with the “specific intent” for forces led by Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic to commit crimes.

On Thursday, presiding Judge Liu Daqun rejected that interpretation of international law, saying it is “in direct and material conflict with the prevailing jurisprudence.”

The ruling has no effect on Perisic himself. His acquittal can’t be overturned.