Court Ruling: Serbs Must Pay $5 Billion in Damages for Bosnian Genocide Victims
U.S. Jury Returns $4.5 Billion Verdict Against Former Bosnian Serb Leader Radovan Karadzic. Will Republika Srpska — a province in Bosnia-Herzegovina created as a result of ethnic cleansing and genocide — end up paying the bill, since Karadzic is broke?
(Originally published on September 26, 2000. More recent commentary follows after this text)
NEW YORK — Former Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic has been ordered by a U.S. jury to pay $4.5 billion in damages for atrocities committed by his soldiers. The jury and judge hearing the civil case against Karadzic, who remains an international fugitive, said Monday that the United States can’t ignore genocide a world away. “It’s very important that the United States of America rises to the occasion when these things happen and we just don’t wait for the United Nations’ war crimes tribunal,” Judge Peter K. Leisure said in the Manhattan courtroom.
The jury awarded $617 million in compensatory damages and $3.9 billion in punitive damages for injuries and deaths suffered by 39 people. The damages were awarded to 13 women and 10 men, none of whom were in the courtroom when the verdict was read. The verdict came just weeks after a different jury returned a $745 million verdict against Karadzic in a civil case focusing on women injured in the war in the former Yugoslavia. Both lawsuits had been brought under a 221-year-old U.S. law letting foreign citizens sue foreign officials and citizens for violating the law of nations.
Karadzic fought the claims through New York lawyers for four years before telling the judge he would not defend himself. He also has been indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on charges of genocide.
“Can you really hope to find truth or do justice or protect rights for people in distant nations?” Karadzic wrote. ” Do you really believe that attaching a U.S. dollar sign to human tragedy around the world by empty judgments in uncontested lawsuits is a step toward peace or justice?”
The judge ruled that Karadzic defaulted in the lawsuits, leaving the juries only to decide what he owed the plaintiffs in damages. Both trials featured several witnesses who traveled from Bosnia and appeared anonymously, describing scenes so disturbing that Bill Walters, the foreman of Monday’s jury, said he had nightmares.
“It was not easy to come up with compensation, but it was also not hard,” Walters said.
The plaintiffs alleged gross human rights abuses, including genocide, torture, rape, execution, war crimes and other human rights abuses in an ethnic cleansing campaign to drive non-Serbs from their homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and to establish Serbian control of the region.
A 12-year-old girl who now lives in Chicago described during the two-week trial how her leg had been blown off by a mortar attack in Bosnia when she was 5. Other victims described nightmares after being raped repeatedly and witnessing the murders of loved ones. Some told stories of men being forced to have sex with one another or others being forced to drink motor oil. Another said he saw Serbian soldiers cut off the head of one man and play soccer with it in front of the man’s friends.
Mirza Hirkich, a plaintiff who testified during the trial, said she didn’t expect to ever see a penny of the damages award. “They believe what we went through,” she said. “I wanted all those people to understand how guilty were all the Serbs who did bad things.” Walters said jurors understood that a verdict likely would never be paid but it was important to send a message because it was clear Karadzic was responsible.
“The guards did the same things all over the country so there was no doubt in our minds that there was a master plan,” he said.
‘Karadzic owes me US$ 35 million’
Nacional number 663,
29 July 2008.
Now that Radovan Karadzic has been arrested, the legal conditions exist to carry out the ruling whereby he and the Republika Srpska have to pay out US5 million to the victims of torture and rape at in the Omarska concentration camp in 1992. That, namely is the verdict handed down by US district judge Peter K. Leisure, who in August of 2000 handed Karadzic a massive fine that the former Bosnian butcher has to pay to a group of twelve women who were tortured and raped in 1992 at Omarska camp near Prijedor.
One woman, the initiator of the judicial proceedings against Karadzic, is well-known to the Croatian public: she is Jadranka Cigelj, the former head of Government’s Bureau for Associations, dismissed from the post in January of 2007 after a falling out with Deputy Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and accusations that she had ordered a security check of the members of the Civil Society Development Council. And since a new episode in the battle for the indemnification Karadzic owes to his victims following the court ruling has started with his arrest, Jadranka Cigelj, dubbed these days by her friends a potential millionaire, has related for Nacional the history of the lawsuit against the man who had claimed until last week to be alter ego Dragan Dabic.
Born 1958 in Zagreb, Jadranka Cigelj moved with her parents to Prijedor as a seven-year-old. After graduating law in Sarajevo she was employed as a lawyer at the Ribnjak Sanicani company in Prijedor. She became actively involved in politics in the early 1990s, and the outbreak of ethnic conflict in Bosnia saw her at the post of vice-president of the local HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) organisation in Prijedor. The Serbian militia came for her on the morning of Sunday 14 June 1992 and took her to Omarska, the notorious internment camp near Prijedor. Jadranka Cigelj was held there with some thirty other women, Bosniak, Croat and even two Serb women that the Serbian paramilitary had accused of “collaborating with the Ustasha.” During the day, the women at Omarska had to prepare meals for the internees and clean the rooms in which prisoners were tortured, and in the evening the camp guards, and even the camp commanders, would brutally rape them. Jadranka Cigelj has received some kind of satisfaction – of the four men who raped her at Omarska, three have already been convicted of crimes committed at the concentration camp, although the fourth rapist has to this day not been identified.
In early August of 1992, foreign journalists managed to record shocking footage from the Omarska concentration camp, seen around the world along with information about the atrocities going on there, and the result of which was that Jadranka Cigelj and the other women were released after suffering months of abuse. These victims of torture and rape at Omarska then went to various parts of the world, while Jadranka Cigelj and some of the other women came as refugees to her native Zagreb. The time spent in exile was marked by thoughts of punishing the guilty. “In 1995 there were eleven of us women from Omarska in Croatia. We were about to break up, as the women had to go abroad to earn a living. One is now in Australia, six went to Germany, two to Sweden, four to the USA, and I was the only one to stay on in Zagreb. The entire time we thought about what to do to Karadzic, as we knew exactly who the guilty parties were, we had no doubts as to who was to blame for the war and the atrocities. On one occasion, we met Catharine MacKinnon, a famous feminist and professor of law at the University of Michigan, who was working at the time with a radical feminist organisation called Kareta, established as a branch of the US feminist association led by Asja Armanda, to whom I and many women who have been through war owe a great deal to.
“We concluded that we ought to find a court that would agree to hear a trial against Radovan Karadzic. At the time he was a free man walking the world, even coming to America, so you had to have the guts to do it. We thought that there was no chance of succeeding, but agreed to it thinking we had nothing to lose,” explained Jadranka Cigelj. In June of 1995, Catharine MacKinnon came with good news. “She came to Zagreb and said that a court had been found that had found grounds in international law, in the Act prohibiting the torture of victims, and that the only problem now was to find a legal firm willing to take on the case. She explained that Justice Peter K. Leisure of the District Court in New York, part of the Federal Court, was willing to hear the trial. She then asked for our signatures for power of attorney, and there was another lull in the activities,” Jadranka Cigelj recalled.
“For a full five years, the US professor sought out a legal firm willing to take on the case against Radovan Karadzic, and the turning point came in May of 2000: “Catharine told us that she had found the legal firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, one of the largest legal firms in the world, involved mostly in financial matters. The problem was that the ten of us and the two women’s organisations did not have money, so that a legal firm had to be found that would finance our accommodation and other expenses during the one-month trial in the USA. A team of lawyers was allotted to us headed by Maria Vullo, an Italian-American just up to make partner in the firm. On 1 August 2000, we left for America not knowing exactly what we were getting into. It was a month of cross-examination, our testimony was given before a grand jury, it was very difficult because they were very thorough; they were even more thorough than the Hague investigators. We were lodged in suites in a hotel in Manhattan, we were confined there and under surveillance to make sure nothing happened to us. The Americans were afraid that one of the Serbs might try to harm us. Out of fear, some of the women have not to this day revealed their identity, so that the verdict itself contains some initials or aliases, because those women are in fear to this day, especially those who have returned to the region,” Jadranka Cigelj explained.
Although the trial of Karadzic was held in absentia, Justice Leisure insisted that Ramsey Clark, Karadzic’s US attorney, who had represented him since 1994 when the Bosnia Serb leader was denied entry to the United States, be present at the trail. Clark, however, was initially persistent in avoiding coming to the court, and Jadranka Cigelj recalls that her US attorneys explained why. “Had Clark come to court he would have had to divulge the address of the accused, and Karadzic was already a fugitive. And so instead of Karadzic a large picture of him was set up in the trail chamber, as it was a trial in absentia. The jury cried through most of our testimony. We were questioned individually, we were not allowed to give testimony in each other’s presence, and before that the attorneys also questioned us. All of our testimony is to this day sealed, and as far as I know it has been offered to the Hague tribunal which has accepted it.”
After a month of proceedings, in August of 2000 Judge Leisure handed down the verdict – Karadzic was ordered to pay the victims of rape a total of US$ 745 million, of which the highest indemnification was won by Jadranka Cigelj and Nusreta Sivac, awarded US$ 35 million. “When the verdict was finally read, we could not believe it. The court was not able to hand down a sentence of imprisonment, it could only rule on a monetary fine. The verdict totalled US$ 745 million in damages, and the two women’s groups each got US$ 100 million to provide assistance to women who had, like us, suffered torture but had not taken part in the trial. My colleague Nusreta Sivac, who was a judge before the war and now works in Sanski Most in the Pension Institute, and myself, each won US$ 35 million, because they felt that as lawyers we had suffered disproportionate damages, so we each won US$ 15 million for loss of earnings and material damages, and US$ 20 million each as the victims of torture,” Jadranka Cigelj recalls.
Nevertheless, the verdict against Karadzic was at the time still subject to appeal. “Judge Leisure invited Karadzic’s lawyer Ramsey Clark to lodge an appeal, but he told the court that his client would not lodge an appeal, so that the verdict became final on 20 September 2000 with full force and effect. Our attorneys then told us that the case was not closed, that we had to wait for Karadzic to be located and apprehended. In the substantiation of the verdict, he is cited as the President of Republika Srpska, and all those who worked with him and aided him are guilty and obliged to pay the damages. According to legal opinions, if it is established that Karadzic does not have sufficient property, the indemnification could be sought from Republika Srpska, which he was at the helm of at the time the crimes were committed. When the trail was over, Muhamed Sacirbej, then ambassador of Bosnia & Herzegovina to the United Nations, came to the hotel and greeted us from the door saying, “I have come to see the millionaires,” and added, “now you can drive the Republika Srpska into bankruptcy.” Now that Karadzic has finally been arrested, my attorney in Zagreb Vesna Skare-Ozbolt and the US attorneys have the task of seeing the verdict implemented, i.e. to finally have the damages that were awarded to us eight years ago by an US court paid out,” concluded Jadranka Cigelj.
Painful testimony in New York
Twelve women from the Omarska concentration camp came to New York in July of 2000 for the trial, where the legal firm representing them paid the cost of their one-month stay in a hotel in Manhattan. The trail was held before a grand jury whose members often broke out in tears during the painful testimony given by the raped women. Because of the comprehensive and painful testimony given, the entire court file, and the verdict, are sealed, and no one but the judge has the right to see the documents.
INDEMNIFICATION FOR TORTURE
Along with the two women’s groups who were each awarded US$ 100 million, Jadranka Cigelj and Nusreta Sivac were awarded the greatest damages for torture and loss of earnings. The US court had in mind that internment in the concentration camp was particularly degrading for the former lawyer and judge.
A TENACIOUS FEMINIST
Catharine MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Michigan got involved first hand in assisting the women raped at Serbian concentration camps. Her search for a US court that would hear the case against Radovan Karadzic lasted five years, after which distinguished lawyers had to be found to represent the 12 raped women.