|Part of the Bosnian War|
Ron Haviv's image showing a member of the Serb Volunteer Guard kicking a dying Bosniak woman
|Location||Bijeljina, Bosnia and Herzegovina|
|Date||1–2 April 1992|
|Target||Mostly Bosniaks, other ethnicities including Serbs|
|Deaths||Unknown (estimates range between 48 and 1,000)|
|Perpetrators||Serb Volunteer Guard, Mirko's Chetniks|
|Motive||Establishment of homogenous Serb territory|
The Bijeljina massacre was the genocidal killing of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in the town of Bijeljina on 1–2 April 1992 during the Bosnian War. The killings also included members of other ethnicities including Serbs themselves. They were committed by a local paramilitary group known as Mirko's Chetniks and the Serb Volunteer Guard (SDG), a Serbian paramilitary group under the command of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) that was subordinate to Serbian President Slobodan Milošević.
In September 1991, Bosnian Serbs had claimed Bijeljina as part of a Serbian Autonomous Oblast which they proclaimed, and in March 1992, the Bosnian referendum on independence was passed with overwhelming support from Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. A poorly organized local Bosniak Patriotic League had been established in response to the Bosnian Serb proclamation and on 31 March it was provoked into an armed conflict by local Serbs and the SDG. On 1–2 April, the SDG and the JNA overtook Bijeljina with little resistance; murders, rapes, house searches, and pillaging followed. On 3 April, Serb forces removed the bodies of those massacred in anticipation of the arrival of a Bosnian government delegation tasked with investigating what had transpired. A number of sources put the figure of civilians killed in the hundreds or even a thousand, but the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was only able to verify a minimum of 48 deaths. After the massacre, a campaign of mass ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs was carried out, all mosques were demolished, and nine detention camps were established.
As of October 2013[update], local courts had not prosecuted anyone for the deaths, but a member of the SDG was under arrest at the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor's Office. Milošević was indicted by the ICTY and charged with carrying out a genocidal campaign that included Bijeljina and other locations, but he died while the trial was in progress. A number of Republika Srpska leaders were convicted for the deportations and forcible transfers in the ethnic cleansing that followed the massacre and Radovan Karadžić, former President of Republika Srpska, is currently on trial for the massacre and other crimes against humanity committed in Bijelina. In 2002, fewer than 2,700 people of the 30,000-strong pre-war Bosniak population still lived in Bijeljina. Local Serbs celebrate 1 April as the "liberation day of Bijeljina" and a street there has been named in honor of the SDG.
According to the 1991 census, the municipality of Bijeljina had about 97,000 inhabitants. Of these, 59% were Bosnian Serbs, 31% were Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and 10% belonged to other ethnicities. The town of Bijeljina had an estimated 37,200 inhabitants, the majority of whom were Bosniaks.
Over the course of 1990 a group of Serb Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) officers and experts from the JNA's Psychological Operations Department had developed the RAM Plan with the intent of organizing Serbs outside of Serbia, consolidating control of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), and preparing arms and ammunition. In 1990 and 1991, Serbs in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina had proclaimed a number of Serbian Autonomous Oblasts with the intent of later unifying them into homogeneous Serb territory. As early as September or October 1990, the JNA had begun arming Bosnian Serbs and organizing them into militias. That same year the JNA disarmed the Territorial Defense Force of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (TORBiH). By March 1991, the JNA had distributed an estimated 51,900 firearms to Serb paramilitaries and 23,298 firearms to the SDS. Throughout 1991 and early 1992 the SDS heavily Serbianized the police force in order to increase Serb political control. In September 1991, Bijeljina was established by the Bosnian Serbs as the capital of the Serbian Autonomous Oblast of Northern Bosnia, later renamed in November as the Serbian Autonomous Oblast of Semberija and in December as the "Serbian Autonomous Oblast of Semberija and Majevica". In response, local Bosniaks established the Patriotic League.
In January 1992, the SDS assembly proclaimed the Republic of the Serbian People of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Radovan Karadžić, its soon-to-be president, announced that a "unified Bosnia and Herzegovina no longer exists". In March, the Bosnian referendum on independence passed with overwhelming support from Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, having been boycotted by most Bosnian Serbs. The SDS, claiming that independence would result in the Serbs becoming "a national minority in an Islamic state", had blocked the delivery of ballot boxes with armed irregular units, and dropped leaflets encouraging the boycott. Despite this, thousands of Serbs in larger cities did participate in the referendum and voted for independence, and several violent incidents were triggered across Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to historian Noel Malcolm the "steps taken by Karadžić and his party – [declaring Serb] "Autonomous Regions", the arming of the Serb population, minor local incidents, non-stop propaganda, the request for federal army "protection" – matched exactly what had been done in Croatia. Few observers could doubt that a single plan was in operation."
According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Bijeljina was the "first municipality of Bosnia and Herzegovina to be taken over by the Bosnian Serbs in 1992". It was strategically significant because of its location, which enabled the easy movement of military personnel, weaponry, and goods into Posavina and the Bosnian Krajina where Serb forces were.
Provocation, takeover, and massacre
Željko Ražnatović ("Arkan"), leader of the Serb Volunteer Guard (SDG), spent a month in Bijeljina devising battle plans prior to the attack. On 30 March 1992, Blagoje Adžić, Bosnian Serb chief-of-staff of the JNA, announced that the army was "ready to protect Serbs from open aggression". Fighting broke out in Bijeljina the following day after local Serbs and SDG personnel threw grenades into shops, including a Bosniak-owned cafe, provoking the poorly organized Patriotic League into an armed conflict. About a thousand SDG members and Mirko's Chetniks, a paramilitary formation commanded by Mirko Blagojević, were involved and captured its important structures.
On 1 or 2 April 1992, the town was encircled by JNA soldiers, tanks, and other vehicles to ostensibly keep the peace. Meeting little resistance, the SDG, under JNA command, and reporting directly to Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, swiftly captured Bijeljina. The Panthers, a paramilitary group led by Ljubiša Savić ("Mauzer"), also participated in the assault or arrived shortly after. Together with the SDG, they began a campaign of violence against local Bosniaks and some of the Serb population, committing several rapes and murders, and searching residents' houses and pillaging their property. Subsequently, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović tasked the JNA with occupying Bijeljina and stopping the violence.
As the fighting progressed, the SDS and the Bosnian Serbs created the Ministry of Interior of Republika Srpska, an independent Serb police force. According to Human Rights Watch, a pattern of violence, fueled by "the strive to create a Greater Serbia", developed in Bijeljina that was later repeated in other municipalities in north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina by similar paramilitary groups from Serbia. This pattern was described by the United Nations Commission of Experts in the following terms:
First, Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces, often with the assistance of the JNA, seize control of the area. In many cases, Serbian residents are told to leave the area before the violence begins. The homes of non-Serb residents are targeted for destruction and cultural and religious monuments, especially churches and mosques, are destroyed. Second, the area falls under the control of paramilitary forces who terrorize the non-Serb residents with random killings, rapes, and looting. Third, the seized area is administered by local Serb authorities, often in conjunction with paramilitary groups. During this phase, non-Serb residents are detained, beaten, and sometimes transferred to prison camps where further abuse, including mass killings, have occurred. Non-Serb residents are often fired from their jobs and their property is confiscated. Many have been forced to sign documents relinquishing their rights to their homes before being deported to other areas of the country.
The exact number killed in the takeover is unknown. Some sources put the figure in the hundreds or at a thousand. According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), at least 48 civilians were killed of which 45 were non-Serbs. The civilians were described as "political leaders, businessmen, and other prominent Bosniaks", and also included women and children. A number of Serbs who had attempted to stop the massacre were also killed. An investigation by the ICTY later stated that the victims had been shot "in the chest, mouth, temple, or back of the head, some at close range" and that none had been wearing military uniforms.
Photo journalist Ron Haviv, who had been invited by Arkan to take photographs, witnessed the killings and one of his pictures, which depicted an SDG member kicking a dying Bosniak woman, was later published in the international media, prompting Arkan to put out a death warrant for Haviv. Meanwhile, the Serbian state-owned Radio Belgrade Network reported that Bijeljina had been "liberated" with the help of "members of the Serbian National Guard of Semberija and Majevica, in cooperation with Serbian volunteers, Arkan's men, and the Serbian 'radicals'".
Bosnian delegation investigation and response
On 3 April, Serb forces removed the bodies of those massacred in anticipation of the arrival of a delegation of high-ranking Bosnian officials the next day. The delegation included Biljana Plavšić, a Serb representative of the Presidency; Fikret Abdić, a Bosniak representative; the Croat Minister of Defense, Jerko Doko; and the chief-of-staff of the JNA 2nd Military District, General Dobrašin Praščević. They were sent by Izetbegović for the purpose of investigating alleged atrocities. On 4 April, the SDG established themselves in the local headquarters of the SDS. Local police, who were engaged in arresting the town's Party of Democratic Action (SDA) presidency, joined them for several days, as did members of the White Eagles and local Territorial Defense Force. Serb flags were mounted on two mosques in Bijeljina, and checkpoints and roadblocks were established, preventing journalists and European monitors from entering. The delegation visited the crisis staff and a military barracks where they were made aware of the situation.
During the visit Plavšić requested that Arkan transfer control of Bijeljina to the JNA, but he refused citing unfinished business and said he would target Bosanski Brod next. In response, Plavšić withdrew her request and commended Arkan for having done a good job in protecting local Serbs from the Bosniak threat. She claimed him to be a "Serb hero" and a "true Serb who was prepared to give his life for his people", adding that "we need such people!". She then thanked and kissed Arkan in public to which the local members of the SDS responded with "shouts of approval". A photograph described as "widely-circulated" and "notorious" shows Plavšić stepping over the body of a dead Bosniak civilian during the kiss. She later stated to Cedric Thornberry, a United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) representative, that Bijeljina was a "liberated" town. Abdić was initially turned back at gunpoint, but was later able to enter. Afterwards, he noted that: "Bijeljina was practically empty, I met with the local authorities, they told me what had happened, but there wasn't a single Muslim there, so we couldn't discuss the problem as a whole. Muslims didn't answer our appeal. They were too scared to come out, and specially scared to talk about it at all." General Sava Janković, commander of the JNA's 17th Corps, reported that:
A big influence of the SDS and Arkan's propaganda is felt in the 38th [Partisan Division] and the 17th [Mixed Artillery Regiment], because of which some [conscripts] have left their units with arms. ... The situation in the territory is extremely complex. The town of Bijeljina is controlled by the SDS and Arkan's men, who do not even allow our anti-tank unit to reach certain positions in the town. There are about 3,000 refugees in the barracks and the Cooperative Hall area in Patkovača. A team from the BH Presidency led by Fikret Abdić, Biljana Plavšić, the chief of staff of the 2nd Military District and the commander of the 17th Corps, has been in Bijeljina barracks since 1200 hours.
He predicted that: "In the following days further deterioration of the entire security and political situation is expected. There is a threat that interethnic conflicts in Posavina and Semberija might spread to other parts of the zone of responsibility ... Direct armed provocations by SDA, [Croatian Democratic Union] HDZ and SDS paramilitary units against commands and units are also possible, as well as attacks by them on military warehouses and isolated facilities." On the same day, Bosnian Defense Minister Ejup Ganić and Croat members of the coalition government urged Izetbegović to mobilize the TORBiH due to the inability of the JNA to stop the violence. Commenting on the images coming out of Bijeljina, Izetbegović said "it was unbelievable almost. The civilians being killed, pictures showed dead bodies of the women in the streets. I thought it was a photomontage, I couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe it was possible." He explained that:
This is simply an attempt by criminals. It came to the murdering of civilians, unarmed men and women. We consider the army responsible for this event. There are indications that it passively stood by and watched what was happening. This unit has been glorified in Serbia and enjoyed the Serbian government's support.
On 4 April, Izetbegović mobilized the Territorial Defense Force so as to "enable people to defend themselves ... from future Bijeljinas". Serb members of the Bosnian Presidency, Plavšić and Nikola Koljević, denounced the mobilization as illegal and resigned. On 8 April, Izetbegović announced a "state of imminent war danger". The JNA rejected requests from the Bosnian Presidency to return the TORBiH's weapons that they had confiscated in 1990. Karadžić and the Bosnian Serb leadership used Izetbegović's mobilization order as a pretext to independence and mobilized their Municipal Crisis Headquarters, reserve police units, and TO forces.
Ethnic cleansing, religious building destruction, and detainment
The SDG stayed in Bijeljina until at least May 1992. The ICTY concluded that Serb forces killed a minimum of 52 people, mostly Bosniaks, between April and September 1992 in the Bijeljina municipality. In April, an "organized campaign" had begun to remove the Bosniak population of Bijeljina. The SDS in Bijeljina put forth a plan and proposed that a Bosniak family be killed "on each side of town to create an atmosphere of fear". On 23 September 1992, the SDG and Mirko's Chetniks handed over control of Bijeljina to the SDS and the plan was carried out by Duško Malović's special police unit. On 24 and 25 September, in the village of Bukres, 22 people including seven children were removed from their homes and taken to the village of Balatun where they were killed and thrown into the Drina river. Mass ethnic cleansing was committed and nine detention camps were established following the massacre. All seven mosques in Bijeljina were destroyed. They were mined systematically under the supervision of police and experts and after their collapse the remains were removed with military construction equipment. Trees were planted where they once stood. A "Commission for the Exchange of Population" was also created, headed by Vojkan Đurković, a major in the SDG, and included Mauzer's Panthers. Đurković claimed that the Bosniaks had left voluntarily and said Bijeljina was "sacred Serbian land". Expulsions continued into 1994, and in July a "systematic program" was implemented with the goal of "expelling the remaining Bosniaks and extorting property and money from them".
War crimes prosecution
Local courts have not filed a single war crimes indictment for the massacre. In response, Branko Todorović, the President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bijeljina, criticized the "lethargic" and "unacceptable behavior" of the judiciary of the Republika Srpska. Those suspected of having committed war crimes who have not yet been prosecuted include:
- Mirko Blagojević, who is claimed to have led Mirko's Chetniks, which took part in the attack and in the ethnic cleansing of Bijeljina. He served as the head of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in Bijeljina and is now a lawyer.
- Vojkan Đurković, who is suspected of forcing Bosniak civilians "to hand over all their money, valuables and documents, and to sign away their property." He is also reported to have worked with the Panthers and other groups in the "forcible expulsion of the civilian population". He was arrested in November 2005, and was released from custody less than a month later.
- Jovan Aćimović, who is alleged to have had a major role in the last initiative to remove Bosniaks from Bijeljina shortly prior to the signing of the Dayton Agreement.
In 1997, the ICTY secretly indicted Arkan for war crimes carried out in Sanski Most in 1995, but not for those in Bijeljina. Arkan was killed in 2000 and did not face trial. In 1999, Serbian president Slobodan Milošević was indicted by the ICTY and charged with carrying out a genocidal campaign that included Bijeljina and other locations, but he died while the trial was in progress. Plavšić and Momčilo Krajišnik, speaker of the National Assembly of the Republika Srpska, were found guilty by the ICTY of committing crimes against humanity and engaging in "persecution on political, racial or religious grounds" through deportation and forcible transfer in Bijeljina and other areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2002, Plavšić was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment and in 2009 Krajišnik was sentenced to 20. After serving two-thirds of her sentence, Plavšić was released in October 2009. Krajišnik was released in August 2013, having served two-thirds of his sentence. In 2010, the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor's Office investigated Borislav Pelević, a former SDG member and a member of the Serbian parliament. The investigation was ultimately dropped due to lack of evidence. In 2012, the Prosecutor's Office request for the arrest of Srđan Golubović was fulfilled in Belgrade. Golubović was charged with an indictment listing the names of 78 victims. Clint Williamson, the lead prosecutor, said that other members of the SDG could not be identified because their faces had been covered with masks. As of March 2013, Karadžić, the former President of Republika Srpska, was on trial for the massacre and other crimes against humanity committed in Bijelina, amongst other areas, and for the genocide at Srebrenica.
The Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo estimates that a total of 1,040 people were killed in the town during the war. In 2000, less than 2,700 people of the pre-war Bosniak population of over 30,000 still lived in Bijeljina. Many faced difficulty in returning to their homes, encountered discrimination from the police, could not get an identification card, or reconnect their phone lines. Local authorities prevented the Islamic community from reconstructing a mosque and, for a while, did not allow them to have their own local meeting place. Meaningful Bosniak participation in the politics and administration of the municipality was also blocked.
In 2007, the Bijeljina truth commission was created with a four-year mandate. It held two public hearings in 2008, but by March 2009, although it was not formally disbanded, the commission was effectively dissolved when the majority of its members resigned. A number of factors have been cited as contributing to its failure, such as the inclusion of the commander of the Batković detention camp in its delegation, its limited legal standing, disputes over the commission's scope, and poor funding.
Local Serbs celebrate 1 April as the "liberation day of Bijeljina", and a street in the town is presently named after the Serbian Volunteer Guard. In 2012, the Bijeljina municipal veterans organization, municipal officials, and city leaders marked the occasion stating that "on this day the Serbian people of Semberija were organized to defend against and prevent a new Jasenovac and notorious 13th Handschar division."
- HRW May 2000, pp. 2, 16, 33.
- Weitz 2003, p. 215.
- Armatta 2010, pp. 285, 470.
- ICTY Momčilo Krajišnik CIS, p. 1.
- ICTY Biljana Plavšić CIS, p. 1.
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- BBC 24 May 2001.
- Kifner 24 January 2001.
- ICTY 27 September 2006, p. 115.
- Silber & Little 1997, p. 225.
- ICTY 27 September 2006, pp. 113–114.
- Velikonja 2003, p. 247.
- BBC 27 February 2003.
- Subotić 2012, p. 42.
- ICTY 27 September 2006, pp. 329–330.
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- Sudetic 5 April 1992.
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- Musli 24 September 2011.
- HRW May 2000, p. 4.
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- HRW May 2000, p. 28.
- AI 21 December 1994, pp. 6–7.
- Sudetic 18 July 1994; Sudetic 3 September 1994; Sudetic 5 September 1994; Sudetic 20 September 1994; Sudetic 30 August 1994
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- Little 17 September 2008.
- Husejnovic 8 November 2008.
- Musli 2 April 2012.
- B92 27 October 2011.
- ICTY 23 September 1997.
- Erlanger 16 January 2000.
- Traynor 27 October 2009.
- Fox News 30 August 2013.
- Ristic 2 October 2012.
- Irwin 22 March 2013.
- ICTY Radovan Karadžić CIS, p. 1.
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- Books and journals
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- Lukic, Rénéo; Lynch, Allen (1996). Europe From the Balkans to the Urals: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-829200-5.
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- Thomas, Nigel (2006). The Yugoslav Wars (2): Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, 1992–2001. New York: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-964-6.
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- News articles
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- "Bosnian Serbs welcome released war criminal Momcilo Krajisnik home as a hero". Fox News. 30 August 2013.
- Husejnovic, Merima (8 November 2008). "Bijeljina's Strange Silence Over War Crimes". Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
- Rachel, Irwin (22 March 2013). "Karadzic Witness Pressed on Serb "Tigers"". Institute for War & Peace Reporting.
- Kifner, John (24 January 2001). "A Pictorial Guide to Hell; Stark Images Trace the Balkans' Descent and a Photographer's Determination". The New York Times.
- "Ko uzima deo Cecine kuće?" [Who's Taking a Piece of Ceca's House?]. B92 (in Serbo-Croatian). 27 October 2011.
- Little, Allan (17 September 2008). "Karadzic's broken Bosnia remains". BBC.
- Musli, Emir (24 September 2011). "Zločin bez kazne" [Crime Without Punishment]. Deutsche Welle (in Serbo-Croatian).
- Musli, Emir (2 April 2012). "Odbrana ili zločin?" [Defense or Crime?]. Deutsche Welle (in Serbo-Croatian).
- Musli, Emir (13 March 2013). "Dvadeset godina od rušenja bijeljinskih džamija" [Twenty Years Since the Destruction of Bijeljina's Mosques]. Deutsche Welle (in Serbo-Croatian).
- Pazarac, Sadik (8 August 2010). "Kako su se mijenjali nazivi ulica u Bijeljini" [How the Names of Streets Have Changed in Bijeljina]. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (in Serbo-Croatian).
- Ristic, Marija (2 October 2012). "Belgrade DJ Investigated For War Crimes". Balkan Insight.
- "Sjećanje na početak aprila 1992. godine: Bijeljina slavi zločine" [Remembering the Beginning of April 1992: Bijeljina Celebrates Crimes] (in Serbo-Croatian). Dnevni Avaz. 2 April 2012.
- Sudetic, Chuck (5 April 1992). "Bosnia Calls Up Guard and Reserve". The New York Times.
- Sudetic, Chuck (18 July 1994). "More 'Ethnic Cleansing' by Serbs Is Reported in Bosnia". The New York Times.
- Sudetic, Chuck (3 September 1994). "Serb Gang Expels 566 Muslims From Their Homes in Bosnia". The New York Times.
- Sudetic, Chuck (5 September 1994). "Serbs Drive 800 More Muslims From Homes". The New York Times.
- Sudetic, Chuck (20 September 1994). "Serbs Step Up Violence Against Bosnian Muslim Civilians". The New York Times.
- Sudetic, Chuck (30 August 1994). "Bosnian Serbs Force More Than 2,000 Muslims to Leave Their Homes". The New York Times.
- Traynor, Ian (27 October 2009). "Leading Bosnian Serb war criminal released from Swedish prison". The Guardian.
- "Witness to Balkans bloodshed". BBC. 24 May 2001.
- International, governmental, and NGO sources
- "Biljana Plavšić – Case Information Sheet". International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. IT-00-39 & 40/1.
- Bosnia-Herzegovina: Living for the Day – Forced Expulsions from Bijeljina and Janja (Report). Amnesty International. 21 December 1994. EUR 63/022/1994. http://www.amnesty.org/pt-br/library/asset/EUR63/022/1994/es/7583486d-f8c0-11dd-b40d-7b25bb27e189/eur630221994en.pdf.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council (Report). International Center for Transitional Justice. 8 September 2009. http://ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-FormerYugoslavia-Bosnia-Review-2009-English.pdf.
- Final Report of the United Nations Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992) (Report). United Nations Security Council. 28 December 1994. S/1994/674/Add.2. http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/comexpert/anx/III-A.htm#IV.A.3.
- "Momčilo Krajišnik – Case Information Sheet". International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. IT-00-39.
- "Prosecutor v. Momčilo Krajišnik (Trial Judgment)". International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). 27 September 2006. IT-00-39-T.
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