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NATO leaders sentenced by Belgrade court

Chair tag
The empty chair labelled for President Clinton in the Belgrade court  

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- A court in Yugoslavia has sentenced a group of Western and NATO leaders to 20 years in prison for war crimes committed during last year's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.

Among those sentenced are US President Bill Clinton, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and French President Jacques Chirac.

Presiding Judge Veroljub Rakitic said an arrest warrant was also issued for the 14 leaders, tried in absentia, but said they could appeal the verdict within 15 days.

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The leaders were charged with inciting an aggressive war, war crimes against the civilian population and the use of banned combat means.

Before the sentence was announced, the prosecutor told CNN there was no statute of limitations on the charges.

"You know that once somebody's sentenced time has no influence as long as the accused is alive. There is a chance that a sentence will be carried out one day," the prosecutor, Andrija Milutinovic said.

Labels on empty chairs

The trial began earlier this week in Belgrade when a panel of judges faced a row of 14 empty chairs, each one labelled with the name of the person charged in absentia.

Clinton and Blair
Clinton and Blair - sentenced to 20 years  

The 120-page indictment also included charges of using illegal means of warfare, the attempted assassination of Milosevic, whose residence was attacked, and "violation of the territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia.

In front of 300 reporters, spectators and international observers, Belgrade district attorney Andrija Milutinovic opened proceedings by reading out the names of 240 Yugoslav army soldiers, 147 Serbian policemen and 503 civilians killed in NATO air strikes.

"We have more than enough evidence for the case," he said.

Yugoslavia suffered heavily in the bombing, launched last year to halt Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

CNN's Belgrade bureau chief Alessio Vinci said many believe the real aim of the trial is to fan anti-NATO feeling in Yugoslavia, which could then translate into votes for Milosevic in presidential elections at the weekend.

Those charged have been handed their indictments through diplomatic mail.

Zanka Stojanovic, the mother of one of 16 people killed when NATO bombed the headquarters of Serb television, took no comfort from the trial.

"To try somebody who is not present is nothing more than making fun of the court," she said. "We want NATO leaders to be tried, and all those who participated in the killing of our children, but only if the accused are present."



RELATED STORIES:
In-Depth Specials
Yugoslavia Decides
Milosevic: Fiend or hero?
September 20, 2000
Tension mounts ahead of Yugoslavia elections
September 20, 2000
Milosevic plans Kosovo visit despite arrest threat
September 1, 2000

RELATED SITES:
FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF YUGOSLAVIA
Human Rights Watch - Yugoslavia
NATO Official Homepage

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