The Netherlands is liable for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men slain by Serbs during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, appeals judges ruled in a civil suit Tuesday, ordering the Dutch government to compensate the men's relatives.
The ruling could open the path to other compensation claims by victims who claim their male relatives should have been protected by the Dutch U.N. peacekeepers in charge of the U.N. "safe zone" near Srebrenica during Bosnia's 1992-1995 war, although the same Hague Appeals Court has dismissed such claims in the past.
It could also have wider implications for countries sending troops on U.N. peacekeeping missions, as it opens the possibility of national governments being taken to court for the actions of their troops even when they are under U.N. control.
The case was brought by Hasan Nuhanovic, an interpreter who lost his brother and father, and relatives of Rizo Mustafic, an electrician who was killed. They argued that all three men should have been protected by Dutch peacekeepers. Mustafic and Nuhanovic were employed by the Dutch peacekeepers, but Nuhanovic's father and brother were not.
One of the relatives, Damir Mustafic, told The Associated Press outside the court that the ruling came just days before he was to bury his father's remains in a Srebrenica cemetery. Some 600 bodies exhumed from mass graves around the town in the past year have been identified using DNA tests, and they will be interred Monday as part of commemorations for the 16th anniversary of Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
"I am very happy, finally," Mustafic said. "It has been a long case and it feels especially good because on the 11th, I have to bury my father."
The victims were among thousands of Muslims who took shelter in the U.N. compound as Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Gen. Ratko Mladic overran 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 the compound. Bosnian Serb forces sorted the Muslims by gender, then trucked the males away and began executing some 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Those bodies were plowed into hastily made mass graves in what international courts have ruled was genocide.
In 2010 the same appeals court dismissed a class action suit filed by victims' families who belong to a group called "The Mothers of Srebrenica," noting that U.N. peacekeepers' immunity from prosecution is laid down in the U.N. charter. Without it, no state would contribute soldiers to U.N. peacekeeping mission.
But Tuesday's ruling said even though the Dutch soldiers were operating under a U.N mandate, in the confusion of the moment, they were under the "effective control" of top Dutch military and government officials in The Hague when they ordered hundreds of Muslim men and boys out of their compound.
The three men were among the last to be expelled, the ruling said, and by that time the peacekeepers — known as "Dutchbat" for Dutch battalion — already had seen Bosnian Serb troops abusing Muslim men and boys and should have known they faced the real threat of being killed.
"Dutchbat should not have turned these men over to the Serbs," a summary of the judgment said.
Sabaheta Fejzic, who lost her husband and her son in the massacre said the ruling opened "a path for 6,000 more victims who are holding the Dutch government and the U.N. responsible for what happened."
"We really believed that they would protect us, but they did not even let us inside their base," she added.
Government lawyer Karlijn Teuben said she would have to study the decision before deciding whether to appeal.
The Hague Appeals Court did not immediately set a compensation figure. Victims' lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld said the sum would "not be in the millions."
"This was never about money for the victims," Zegveld said.
Zegveld was surprised the appeals panel overturned a 2008 court ruling that rejected any Dutch government responsibility.
"I didn't consider this possible within the borders of the Netherlands," she said. "Because we're all too much involved. It's too big, it's too much a trauma in our state and I thought the court would not be able to disentangle themselves from the drama."
Nuhanovic said the ruling was "a relief," but he is still pursuing other cases at home in Bosnia.
"I am after the killers of my family, the Serbs who live in Bosnia," he said. "One of them even works in the same building where I work ... I have to go to my office every day to the same building and he's still there. So this is just one of the cases I have been dealing with for the last 10-15 years."
Tuesday's ruling is the latest step in dealing with a national trauma for the Netherlands.
The humiliated Dutch troops returned home from Srebrenica to scathing charges of cowardice and incompetence, although subsequent inquiries exonerated the ground forces.
The Dutch government resigned in 2002 after an investigation by the National War Documentation Institute blamed the debacle on Dutch authorities and the United Nations for sending the battalion into the mission, failing to give the peacekeepers enough weapons for self-defense and refusing to answer the commanders' call for air support.
The government accepted "political responsibility" for the mission's failure and contributes aid to Bosnia, much of which is earmarked for rebuilding in Srebrenica. But it has always said responsibility for the massacre itself lies with the Bosnian Serbs.
Zegveld said although the ruling was tightly focused on the three victims named in the case, it would likely give hope to others.
"I assume that for those families who had male members on the compound that they stand a good chance to win their case as well," she said.
Zegveld said she also is considering launching a civil case in Dutch courts against Mladic, who was extradited here by Serbia in May after more than 15 years on the run.
Mladic is being held at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, where he faces 11 charges including genocide for commanding troops responsible for atrocities including the Srebrenica massacre.
Mladic belligerently refused to enter any pleas to the charges at a hearing Monday and judges entered not guilty pleas on his behalf. He faces a life sentence if convicted.