THE HAGUE: An appeals court in the Netherlands ruled the Dutch state responsible Tuesday for the deaths of three Muslim men during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, opening the way for compensation claims.

The ruling was greeted by the Mothers of Srebrenica association in the eastern Bosnian town as a breakthrough in their bid to force the Netherlands to recognise broader responsibility for the deaths of more than 7,000 others.

“The State of the Netherlands is responsible for the death of three Muslim men after the fall of Srebrenica” in eastern Bosnia, which was then under the protection of Dutch UN peacekeepers, the court said.

The court of appeal's ruling marks the first time the Dutch state has been held responsible for the actions of its UN peacekeeping battalion which was charged with protecting thousands of Muslims from a Bosnian Serb offensive.

The Serb forces brushed aside the Dutch before executing some 8,000 men and boys over the following days in the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II. The events were termed genocide by two international courts.

The case was brought by the Dutch battalion's (Dutchbat) interpreter, Hasan Nuhanovic, and the family of the Dutchbat electrician, Rizo Mustafic, who was killed when he was handed over by the peacekeepers. Nuhanovic lost his father and brother when they were turned over to the Bosnian Serbs.

The three men were inside the UN-protected enclave, and the Dutch battalion “should not have turned these men over to the Serbs,” the court said in its ruling.

The Dutch defence ministry expressed surprise at the judgement, saying it would “study the ruling and then see how to proceed”.

The verdict overturns a 2008 decision in which a court ruled that the Dutch state was not responsible for the deaths of Bosnian Dutchbat employees and their families because they were operating under a UN mandate.

The appeals court judged that Dutchbat soldiers were under UN command but that after the fall of Srebrenica “an extraordinary situation had come into being in which the Dutch Government became more actively involved with Dutchbat and with the evacuation of the refugees.” The Bosnian Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic, is currently on trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

“Legally, we had a concrete case. But politically, it's very sensitive,” Liesbeth Zegveld, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, said.

“This reinforces my confidence that procedures like this can be conducted in the Netherlands.” She said the Netherlands should pay damages with interest to the victims, the amount to be determined once all legal avenues are exhausted, as the state can appeal on Tuesday's ruling to the country's highest court, the Court of Cassation.

“The question of damages was not tackled by the court of appeal,” said a spokeswoman for the court, Maartje Verweij.

In Sarajevo, Sabaheta Fejzic of the Mothers of Srebrenica association said: “This ruling is a very good thing. It certainly paves the way that the Dutch state be also proclaimed responsible for what has happened in Srebrenica, for other victims also.”

Lawyers of the Sarajevo-based association, gathering families of the 1995 massacre victims, filed a joint suit against the Dutch state before a tribunal in The Hague in 2007.

Tuesday's appeals court ruling is a shot in the arm for that suit, filed in the name of some 7,600 people, lawyer Semir Guzin said.

He said he expected hearings in that case to start “in late 2011 or in early 2012 at the latest.” Guzin added that the ruling in the Nuhanovic case was particularly helpful to their case. “It maybe paves the way for an out-of-court settlement,” he said.

“They (the Netherlands) will not be able to avoid justice. Its wheels grind slowly,” said Fejzic, whose teenage son and husband were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica.

“Serb soldiers grabbed my son from my arms in front of the Dutch soldiers' eyes, in front of the Dutch battalion base in Potocari” on the outskirts of Srebrenica, she said.

In 2002, the entire Dutch government led by Wim Kok resigned over an official report that stated its peacekeepers had been sent on an “impossible” mission.—AFP

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