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War Crimes Trial in Sarajevo Begins Today for Serb Soldier

By Peter Maass
The Washington Post

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Lawyer Branko Martic isn't sure whether his client is innocent, but he hopes so.

"I have a hard time accepting that the crimes charged against my client can be committed," Martic said. "I won't feel pleasant if it is proved that he is guilty."

The offenses Martic refers to are known as war crimes. His client is Sretko Damjanovic, a captured Bosnian Serb soldier who is accused of killing five civilians, including a Muslim girl he allegedly raped before murdering, and two brothers whose throats he allegedly slit. Damjanovic is also accused of raping another Muslim girl.

On Friday, the first war crimes trial in Bosnia is to start at Sarajevo's main courthouse, and Martic will be defending one of the two Serbs in the dock. Damjanovic and co-defendant Borislav Herak were captured several months ago when they took a wrong turn near the front line and drove straight into a Bosnian army checkpoint.

Since then, prosecutors say, the two captured Serbs have confessed to a panoply of war crimes. The United Nations has begun collecting information on war crimes by all sides in Bosnia, and hundreds of Serbs have been identified as potential war criminals. But the only ones in the custody of the Muslim-led Bosnian government are Damjanovic and Herak.

"This is the first trial in which charges are being pressed against people who committed crimes that have not been committed since World War II," said prosecutor Ljubomir Lukic, who is expected to ask for the maximum punishment: death by firing squad.

The well-publicized trial may highlight the difficulty of prosecuting Serbs for alleged war crimes. The problem is simple: The crimes took place on territory held by Serbs, most of the victims were killed or have disappeared, and any surviving witnesses are most probably Serbs who will not cross the front lines to testify against their brethren.

Lukic admits to frustration over the fact that the two Serbs in the dock are small fish. The people who should be brought to trial first, he argues, are the political leaders who ordered or approved of the alleged raping, murdering and pillaging that took place in the last 11 months as the Serbs conquered 70 percent of Bosnia.

"We want to show the world ... what some members of Bosnia's Serb population have done," Lukic said. "But we know that (Herak and Damjanovic) only represent the image of an evil policy. The strings are pulled by more important people."

Herak, 22, will have the starring role in the trial. Since his capture, the Serb soldier has given a bookshelf worth of interviews to foreign journalists. He has told of raping and murdering Muslim women, of lining up civilians and mowing them down with his assault rifle, of throwing bodies into a mass grave and using a bulldozer to dump dirt on top of them. He has lost count of the precise number of people he killed. He is being charged with raping more than a dozen women and killing 20 people.

Herak's court-appointed lawyer is Milan Prpa, a Serb who started practicing law in Sarajevo in 1987 and doesn't like to talk to journalists about his unusual client.

It is a case few lawyers would want to have. Damjanovic's lawyer, Martic, said nobody has reproached him so far but he expects criticism once the trial begins.

"The accused has a legal right to a defense, and my obligation is to do the best I can do for him," Martic said. "I am not defending the crimes. I am defending a man who is charged with committing these crimes."