World Bulletin / News Desk
UN war crimes judges on Monday open the appeal hearings for former Bosnian Croat leader Jadranko Prlic and five others in one of the court's "largest and most complicated cases."
Prlic was sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2013 to over two decades in jail on charges of murdering and deporting Muslims during Bosnia's 1992-1995 war.
Five other Bosnian Croat military and political leaders were also handed heavy prison terms by the tribunal based in The Hague after being found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
All six are now appealing against the convictions rendered for their roles in the conflict which was part of the greater Balkans wars that broke out in the 1990s amid the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
The Bosnian war left 100,000 people dead and 2.2 million were displaced.
Judges at sentencing said Prlic, now 57, "made a significant contribution to a joint criminal enterprise and to a criminal purpose to drive out the Muslim population," from Bosnia in a bid to create a "greater Croatian state."
Prlic was sentenced to 25 years behind bars, while his five accomplices were handed between 20 and 10 years in prison.
His co-defendants are his former defence minister Bruno Stojic, and four senior military officials: Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric, and Berislav Pusic.
"The Prlic et al. trial was one of the tribunal's largest and most complicated," the ICTY said in a statement, adding a total of 326 witnesses had appeared during the course of the case.
At the end, the ICTY's judges ruled the six defendants removed Muslims and other non-Croats by force, intimidation and terror "by conducting mass arrests of Bosnian Muslims who were then either murdered, beaten, sexually assaulted, robbed of their property and otherwise abused".
It included the nine-month siege of the southern city of Mostar from June 1993 by Bosnian Croat troops, which saw the destruction of its historical four-century-old bridge, an act which the court said caused "disproportionate damage for the Muslim civilian population of Mostar."
"Muslims were woken up in the middle of the night, beaten and forced to leave their apartments, often still in their pyjamas," presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti said at sentencing in 2013.
Bosnian Croats and Muslims were allies against Bosnian Serbs during most of the country's 1992-1995 war.
However, they also fought against each other for 17 months in 1993 and 1994 in southern and central Bosnia.
As early as December 1991, Croatia's late ultra-nationalist president Franjo Tudjman and other Croat leaders realised that "in order to achieve the ultimate goal of a Croatian territory it was necessary to modify its ethnic composition," said Antonetti in the 2013 ruling.
The self-proclaimed Croatian entity of Herceg-Bosna was proclaimed in August 1993, but dissolved in 1995 just before the Dayton peace accords.
The territory was integrated with the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska into Bosnia-Hercegovina.
A verdict in the appeal is due in November 2017, in what will be one of the ICTY's last judgements as it winds down more than 20 years after it opened. Sentence is also due to be passed around the same time in the case of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic.
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