WASHINGTON -- In the fall of 1999, I was a privileged visitor to the old Croatian-German city of Vukovar, which lies like a beautiful necklace along the far southern reaches of the Danube. Its Baroque streets were evidence that northern Europe had, over several centuries, brought its civilizing ethic to the wild Balkans. It was a plains' Salzburg, a little Prague, a southern Tallinn.
The only problem was that, by that late hour when we journalists had come, the rampaging Serbs had already, eight years earlier, turned upon Vukovar, making it what would come to be known as "Croatia's Stalingrad."
The Serbs distinguished themselves there by not only leaving the city in ruins, but by promising that patients in the hospital would be saved, if evacuated. But when they were painstakingly evacuated from the building, all were killed as, we were told, high officials from Belgrade stood by, smiling broadly.
By now, the heinous and thoroughly avoidable Serb wars against Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Kosovo are blessedly over. A jagged peace has settled over the region, mostly thanks to American bombing of the Serbs. Nothing can get any worse than it was, right?
Well, that is wrong. Unbelievably and against any of the international concepts of justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (the ICTY) has ruled that two of the men from Belgrade most intimately connected with what many now consider a genocide against the Bosnians and Croats were acquitted of all crimes!
They were acquitted of overseeing the group of terrorizing thugs called "the Unit," a secretive combat squad linked to war crimes across the former Yugoslavia, also known as the Knindze or "Ninjas," the Scorpions, Arkan's Tigers, the Red Berets or the Special Operations Unit.
Was this because there was not enough evidence against them?
Not at all! In several years of hearings by the ICTY, according to The Economist, the tribunal's judgment "describes their key role in setting up, organizing, training and financing the various Serbian militias and police forces which operated in Croatia and Bosnia. It described how they murdered and ethnically cleansed non-Serbs ... In one example, referring to ethnic cleansing operations in Bosanski Samac and Doboj in 1992, the tribunal found that the unit in question had committed murder, deportation and forcible transfer."
Jovica "Ledeni" or "Ice-Man" Stanisic, the former head of Serbia's secret police and second to the brutish late President Slobodan Milosevic, and Franko "Frenki" Simatovic, commander of the special operations unit known as the Red Berets, are now two gray-haired jowly men who resemble members of Chicago's underworld. They were free to take off immediately after the May 31 verdict -- and they did -- because, as the judgment itself stated, the assistance that the two men gave the Unit was "not specifically directed towards the commission of the crimes of murder, deportation, forcible transfer or persecution. Rather, it allowed for the reasonable conclusion that the assistance was specifically directed towards establishing and maintaining Serb control over these areas."
In short, the three judges ruled that the two Serb intelligence men trained, armed and oversaw the vicious Serb units -- many of them brought out of prison to fight -- but that they did not themselves actually PULL the triggers of the militias' guns! Thus, the two Serbs were not guilty for what their militias did.
We must read that over and over to realize what it really means.
The people of Vukovar -- those who were left, that is, after Stanisic's and Simatovic's "innocent" planning, arming and overseeing -- were, not surprisingly, disbelieving at the verdict, which destroyed them a second time.
"Those men designed and carried out all that happened in Vukovar before the aggression itself," Ivan Kovacic, president of Vukovar veterans' association Vukovar 91, was quoted as saying afterward. "They trained men and sent them to Vukovar to perpetrate crimes and provoke turmoil."
Meanwhile, respected legal scholars have already begun looking at this acquittal with tragic wonder. Chuck Sudetic, a former ICTY analyst and co-author of a book on the tribunal with the former chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said: "Arguably, if Hitler were being judged for crimes arising out of the Holocaust on the basis of the aiding and abetting standard now being applied by the ICTY, he might well have gotten off. Milosevic would likely have gotten off for Bosnia and Croatia. This is not blind justice. This is blindness."
The new rule, moreover, "turns back precedents set at Nuremberg after World War II and does so 20 years after the establishment of the ICTY and might eventually emasculate the capacity of the institutions of international justice to bring to justice the highest-ranking persons responsible for heinous war crimes. Only the actual killers will be punished, not the mass murderers."
Indeed, that has already happened. The men found guilty in the Balkans wars were all lower functionaries. When higher people, like Momcilo Perisic, the chief of the general staff of the Yugoslav army from 1993 to 1998, were found guilty, they were all acquitted on appeal.
So it is not unfair to say that there actually IS guilt a-plenty in The Hague. The problem is that the guilty are now the judges of the tribunal who have found so many innocent.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)