A court on Wednesday cleared the Netherlands of liability in the deaths of the most of the 8,000 Bosnian Muslims slain in the Srebrenica massacre 19 years ago, but did order the nation to compensate the families of more than 300 men turned over to Bosnian Serb forces and later killed.
In an emotionally charged hearing at a civil court in The Hague, presiding Judge Larissa Alwin said Dutch United Nations peacekeepers should have known that the men deported from the Dutch compound by Bosnian Serb forces on July 13, 1995, would be slain because there was already evidence of the Serbs committing war crimes.
"By co-operating in the deportation of these men, Dutchbat acted unlawfully," Alwin said, referring to the name of the Dutch UN battalion.
The victims were among thousands of Muslims killed after Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Gen. Ratko Mladic overran the town of Srebrenica on July 11 in what was to become the bloody climax to the 1992-95 Bosnian war that claimed 100,000 lives.
Two days later, the outnumbered Dutch peacekeepers bowed to pressure from Mladic's troops and forced thousands of Muslim families out of their fenced-off compound. Bosnian Serb forces sorted the Muslims by gender, then trucked the males away and began executing them. Their bodies were plowed into hastily made mass graves in what international courts have ruled was genocide.
Group that filed case will 'keep fighting'
But the ruling cleared Dutch troops of responsibility in the murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men who fled into the forests around Srebrenica and were later rounded up and murdered by Serb forces, saying "Dutchbat cannot be held liable for their fate."
Relatives of the dead welcomed the limited finding of liability, but lamented that it did not go much further.
"Obviously the court has no sense of justice," said Munira Subasic, president of the Mothers of Srebrenica group that filed the case. "How is it possible to divide victims and tell one mother that the Dutch state is responsible for the death of her son on one side of the wire and not for the son on the other side?"
Subasic said her organization would "keep fighting for truth and justice. And in the end we will win."
The court did not say how much compensation the families should receive.
Earlier in the long-running case, judges said relatives of the victims could not sue the United Nations in Dutch courts because its immunity from prosecution is a cornerstone of peacekeeping operations around the world.
A lawyer for the relatives, Marco Gerritsen, said he would carefully study the 89-page ruling before deciding whether to appeal.
The Dutch Defence Ministry did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the ruling.
Dutch peacekeepers' involvement in the Srebrenica massacre has long been a source of national trauma for the Netherlands. In 2002, then-prime minister Wim Kok and his government resigned following a report that blamed Dutch authorities and the UN for sending ill-equipped troops without a strong enough mandate to prevent the slaughter.