Mehinovic v. VuckovicTorture and Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina
IN BRIEF | BACKGROUND | LEGAL PROCEEDINGS
CJA filed a complaint in 1998 on behalf of four Bosnian Muslims who were tortured by a Serb soldier in Bosnia-Herzegovina. On April 29, 2002, the U.S District Court for the Northern District of Georgia held Nikola Vuckovic liable for torture; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; arbitrary detention; war crimes; crimes against humanity; and genocide. The court awarded the plaintiffs $140 million in damages.
On April 17, 1992, Serb forces seized control of the Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac and almost immediately implemented a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. They subjected non-Serb adult males to wholesale detention and forcibly expelled hundreds of Croat and Muslim women, children and elderly.
CJA client, Kemal Mehinovic, a Bosnian Muslim baker, was one of the victims of this campaign. On May 27, 1992, Kemal was taking a mid-day nap at home when Serb police and soldiers knocked on his door. They beat him in front of his famil, arrested him without a warrant, and then drove him to a police station for interrogation. He was held in Serb detention centers, under squalid conditions with little food and no medical care. For the next six months, he endured brutal torture at the hands of a former neighbor, turned prison guard, a Serb soldier named Nikola Vuckovic.
Prior to the war, Vuckovic was also a resident of Bosanki Samac, where he knew the plaintiffs well. His brother-in-law worked in Kemal’s bakery. Ironically, Vuckovic’s own wife was a Bosnian Muslim. Yet none of this kept him from torturing his former neighbors with utter savagery.
Vuckovic beat the plaintiffs with bare fists and metal pipes, sometimes hanging them from ropes and beating their genitals. With a knife, he carved a Muslim symbol into one plaintiff’s face and plunged his head into a latrine. Witnesses testified that Vuckovic often drank with other Serb soldiers and invited them to “help themselves” to the detainees. He shouted racial epithets at them: “Sue cemo vas pobit” (“We’ll kill all of you”), and he cursed Bosnian Muslims as an “Izmislena nacija” (“invented nationality”). Vuckovic and the other soldiers played Russian roulette with their captives. They fired rounds over a plaintiff’s head, mocking: “Even the bullets don’t want him.”
Vuckovic targeted Kemal and the other plaintiffs solely on the basis of their ethnic identity. The sadism to which CJA’s clients were subjected was part of a systematic and widespread campaign of human rights abuse, making Nikola Vuckovic an active participant in the genocidal ethnic cleansing of Bosnia’s Muslims. To this day, Kemal Mehinovic and the other plaintiffs relive their physical and mental anguish: a brutal and forced reminder of their torture which is far more painful than the visible scares that some of them bear. To them, the judgment against Vuckovic brings a measure of justice and denies their torturer safe haven in their new adopted home, the United States.
“Vuckovic directly and even sadistically participated in, aided, and observed horrific acts of brutality committed against defenseless civilian detainees whose only crime was that they were members of the Muslim ethnic group ... These acts were at the core of the definition of crimes against humanity.”
--April 29, 2002 judgment of Judge Marvin Shoob
In August 1998, CJA filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia seeking damages against Nikola Vuckovic for torture and other atrocities he committed during the Bosnian War in 1992. The lead plaintiff, Kemal Mehinovic, accused Vuckovic of torturing him and other detainees during a six-month period. In December 1998, three additional plaintiffs joined Kemal in the suit.
The case went to trial on October 22, 2001, but Vuckovic failed to appear in court. According to his family, he had left the United States. Judge Marvin Shoob declared him in default and proceeded to conduct a bench trial on the merits.
The court handed down its judgment on April 29, 2002: Vuckovic was found liable for torture, arbitrary detention, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Each plaintiff was awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.