Judges at the United Nations tribunal in The Hague, voting 2 to 1, said that Mr. Tolimir had been found guilty because as the army’s head of intelligence he knew of the plans to commit “horrific mass murder” of Bosnian Muslim prisoners and played a pivotal role in the crime. He “deliberately participated” in the destruction of the Muslim communities under United Nations protection in the towns of Srebrenica and Zepa, the judges said.
The “despicable criminal operations,” as the presiding judge, Christoph Flügge of Germany, called them, came at the end of a Serb campaign to seize lands slated for Serbs only.
Judge Flügge said several times that Mr. Tolimir, 64, had failed in his duty to protect the prisoners of war before they were led away to the killing sites, inside buildings and on open fields. The crimes that followed were “massive in scale, severe in intensity and devastating in their effect,” he said.
Mr. Tolimir, a general, was the right-hand man of the overall Bosnian Serb Army commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, whose trial was in progress in a nearby courtroom when the genocide verdict was issued.
Gen. Rupert Smith of Britain, the former commander of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, testified last year that the two men “functioned together, not in a hierarchy,” which was evident from “their body language, the tone in which they spoke to each other.” General Smith said he met with Mr. Tolimir several times, and he described his function as “fundamental in the command chain.”
As Judge Flügge, flanked by two other judges, said, “Mr. Tolimir, you are hereby sentenced to life imprisonment,” the defendant stood and listened, eyes cast down, then made the sign of the cross several times.
The verdict was the fifth conviction for genocide by the tribunal dealing with crimes after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Two former Bosnian Serb officers, both subordinates of Mr. Tolimir, have been given life sentences. Two other Bosnian Serbs are serving 35-year prison terms for aiding and abetting genocide.
The court has issued genocide convictions only for crimes committed in Srebrenica, angering victim and human rights groups that are convinced genocide also occurred in northern and eastern Bosnia, where Serbian forces began their ethnic cleansing campaign in 1992, expelling thousands of non-Serbs. Others were imprisoned, tortured, raped and burned alive in their homes.
During the Bosnian war, from 1992 to 1995, an estimated 100,000 civilians and fighters were killed, including Croats and Serbs, but most of the victims were Muslim civilians. The war began after Bosnians tried to break away from Yugoslavia, and Serbs opened a violent campaign to create lands only for Serbs. During that campaign and in subsequent fighting, more than one million people were displaced.
Besides genocide, Mr. Tolimir was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder and persecution. Acting as his own lawyer, he denied any responsibility for events in Srebrenica, saying he left after it was taken by Serbian forces.
The judges found that he went to Zepa, where three civilian and military leaders were captured and killed. There he oversaw the removal of the civilian population and the destruction of homes and a mosque. Although only three leaders were killed, the judges’ summary said, this had an important symbolic purpose, “signaling there was no hope for survival of this community.”
The trial, which went on for 242 days, was interrupted a number of times because of Mr. Tolimir’s ill health. But he insisted on representing himself.
He and some of the four witnesses he called in his defense variously argued that the Serbian forces near the United Nations enclaves were there to fight “terrorists” who were using the zones as bases from which to attack Serbs. Some said only several hundred people were killed during the operations, rather than the more than 7,000 whose bodies have been identified. Muslims in the area were not persecuted, the defense argued, but left voluntarily.