Atrocities in Yugoslavia unraveled much later
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After a murder, police cordon off the scene, gather evidence and interview witnesses, rushing to solve the case before the trail goes cold.
Part One of series:
The cases of murder, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in the former Yugoslavia were already cold when John Cencich arrived in the Balkans as an investigator for the United Nations' war crimes court in 1998.
Cencich, now professor of law and justice at California University of Pennsylvania, had to draw on diverse experiences from a 20-year law-enforcement career to piece together scattered evidence.
While he assisted on many cases investigated by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, he led the investigation of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's suspected crimes in Croatia.
In the process, Cencich played a key role in devising a revolutionary strategy for prosecuting war criminals. The Milosevic case marks the first time the principle of accomplice liability has been used in an international court.
"He made a real significant contribution to our work, and he'll be remembered for that," said Rajie Murugan, a senior investigator with the tribunal who worked for Cencich on the Milosevic case.
Descent into madness
In 1987, Milosevic traveled to the autonomous province of Kosovo to mediate a dispute between Albanians and Serbs. Instead, he ended up siding with the Serbs, then using his control of the media and party machinery to whip Yugoslavia into a nationalist frenzy, according to Christopher Bennett's 1995 book, "Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course and Consequences."
Alarmed by the nationalist tide, Bennett writes, Slovenia began moving toward independence, prompting invasion by the Yugoslav army in 1991. Fighting spread to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991 and 1992, respectively, as those republics seceded, too.
According to indictments, Milosevic and a cadre of associates tried to add Croatian and Bosnian land to Serbia because they had large Serbian communities.
Cencich and the other investigators lacked "silver bullets" to prove the theory, said Murugan, former captain with the South African police service. Rather, they had to rely on their own tenacity and circumstantial evidence to pull suspected perpetrators from the shadows.
"It's about time," Murugan said. "It's about money. It's about travel. It's about finding witnesses. It's about engaging a range of people, a range of institutions, to be successful at the end of the day."
Challenge of a lifetime
After spending two years investigating other suspected war criminals, Cencich received a promotion to head the Milosevic case.
Even for Cencich, who had investigated organized crime and other complex criminal cases for the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and Virginia Charitable Gaming Commission, it was a job of startling logistical and legal difficulty.
To help him, Cencich said, he had a first-rate team of investigators, analysts, lawyers, interpreters and others from around the world.
Atrocities in Croatia included hundreds of murders, 255 at Vukovar hospital alone; wanton damage to Croatian villages and towns, including the medieval walled seaport Dubrovnik; and the expulsion of about 160,000 Croats from territories Serbian forces sought to control.
Milosevic didn't commit the crimes in the conventional sense, by pulling a trigger or assaulting anyone. As president of Serbia at the time -- he wasn't president of Yugoslavia until 1997 -- he lacked legal command of federal forces and of the paramilitary units raised in Croatian Serbian enclaves and blamed for many atrocities.
Yet world opinion held Milosevic accountable for Yugoslavia's violent disintegration, and court records alleged he directed events from the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
Cencich, drawing on his experience investigating organized crime and his affinity for innovation, played a key role in developing a prosecution strategy based on accomplice liability or the common purpose doctrine.
The principle holds members of a group responsible for each others' criminal acts. If three people commit a bank robbery and one fatally shoots a person in the process, for example, the law considers all guilty of murder.
In indicting Milosevic, the tribunal claimed he and more than a dozen associates -- Yugoslav army commanders, Serbian and Yugoslav government officials and Croatian Serbian leaders -- participated in a "joint criminal enterprise" to take Croatian land for Serbia.
The indictment called ethnic cleansing the means to that end, and said each member of the group was responsible for every crime, planned or unplanned, arising from the enterprise. Milosevic wielded power far beyond that of his government office, the indictment said, and controlled developments through his "co-perpetrators."
Cencich wouldn't discuss evidence against Milosevic as a courtesy to other investigators and because Milosevic's trial, which began in February 2002, is expected to last two more years.
But court records offered details of an investigation reminiscent of the days in the 1980s, when Cencich, in an assault on an illicit industry, untangled relationships among club owners and manufacturers and distributors of video-poker machines.
Records showed Cencich's team linked Milosevic and the other suspects with intercepts of phone conversations, witness accounts, documents, reports of international observers and the suspects' public statements and journals. Records said Milosevic helped plan the takeover of Croatian territory and provided financial and logistical assistance to military, paramilitary and police units that committed the atrocities listed in the indictment.
After investigations by other teams, the theory of joint criminal enterprise also was used to indict Milosevic for crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo.
He's presumed innocent during trial. But the tribunal prosecutor's office has accused Milosevic of "the gravest violations of human rights in Europe since the Second World War."
The theory has been used to indict other suspected war criminals, too, including Yugoslav army Col. Mile Mrksic, awaiting trial for atrocities at Vukovar, and Milan Martic, awaiting trial for crimes linked to his Croatian Serbian police force. Cencich was involved in the arrest of both men.
In July 2002, Cencich received a letter of commendation from the tribunal prosecutor's office. The letter lauded his investigative ability, leadership skills and "unimpeachable personal integrity" and emphasized the ground-breaking nature of his work on the joint criminal enterprise.
"The product of these efforts has set the benchmark for future indictments within this tribunal and its successors," the letter said.
By 2002, after four years in the Balkans, Cencich wanted to come home.
While in Europe, Cencich received an advanced law degree from University of Kent in England. He decided to pursue a career in academe and learned of an opening at Cal U through the Chronicle of Higher Education.
He flew to California for an interview, and the university offered him a full professorship in the justice studies program, teaching courses in criminal law, international criminal justice and organized crime.
With residents of Croatian, Serbian and Slovene descent, southwestern Pennsylvania reminds him in some ways of the Balkans.
This semester, Cencich is dividing his time between Cal U and Notre Dame Law School, whose Center for Civil and Human Rights awarded him a fellowship to further develop the theory of the joint criminal enterprise in international armed conflicts.
He's also built on his work at The Hague as president and a founding member of the International Association of War Crimes Investigators.
Cencich's colleagues at The Hague gave him a humidor as a goodbye gift. An inscription, the words of Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor Robert Jackson, remind him not only of the importance of punishing man's inhumanity but of the care one must take in doing so.
"We must never forget," Jackson said, "that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow."
First Published August 29, 2004 12:00 am