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ANALYSIS - War crimes suspects in Bosnia ‘pardoned’ due to ICTY closure

Experts and war crimes survivors see greater involvement of the international community as a possible solution

Erna Mackic   | 10.09.2019
ANALYSIS - War crimes suspects in Bosnia ‘pardoned’ due to ICTY closure

The Bosnia-based writer holds a B.A. in politology and an M.A. in international law. Having started to work as journalist at Dnevni List in 2003, she later joined the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Bosnia and Herzegovina, focusing on transitional justice and the fairness of judicial institutions, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). She is currently an independent journalist and expert on transitional justice. 

SARAJEVO

Less than two years after the closure of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), war crimes suspects who held high-level positions in political and military spheres in the Western Balkans have breathed a sigh of relief as regional co-operation between Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Serbia, and Croatia now only exists on paper. Within the states themselves, “the prosecutorial activities have been reduced”.

Longtime Sarajevo lawyer Vasvija Vidovic, who has worked on war crimes cases in The Hague and the Court of BiH, believes that those responsible for war crimes have not been brought to justice, and that is why the dissatisfaction felt by war crimes survivors is deepening by the day.

“I personally know dozens of investigations into war crimes regarding rape alone, where the accused could be arrested immediately, but they are not," complains Bakira Hasecic, a survivor of the 1992 crimes in (what was then the eastern Bosnian town of) Visegrad and the president of the Women - Victims of War Association.

She says, "We also have cases from The Hague, marked ‘high-priority’, with approximately 800 suspects working in high-level positions, that have not been arrested. Can you imagine what it’s like for us victims when we see these criminals on the streets?”

Hasecic explains that no one has been prosecuted for the atrocious crimes she survived, pointing out that most war crime suspects are believed to be living in Serbia. “We know the addresses of these people in Serbia; we have provided them to the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH, but despite that, nobody is getting prosecuted.”

Visnja Sijacic, legal advisor at the Humanitarian Law Center Belgrade, said that war crimes prosecutions in Serbia in recent years can be seen as a trend of “diminishing prosecutorial activity”. After the completion of the ICTY’s work, even the indictments did not come from the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Serbia, but they were rather issued by the Bosnian Prosecutor’s Office.

When it comes to war crime prosecuting at the state level in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Velma Saric, director of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC), believes that the situation is particularly alarming concerning the Category A cases transferred from The Hague. It is concerning because there are no high-level indictments of those charged with the genocide committed in Srebrenica in July 1995 or during the siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern history.

Mirela Hukovic-Hodzic, a BH Radio 1 journalist who monitored the trials at The Hague tribunal, stresses the fact that victims and families are dissatisfied with the current volume of war crime prosecutions, the length of those actions, and the low amount of sentences that have been imposed.

Experts and war crimes survivors see greater involvement of the international community as a possible solution. It is suggested that international prosecutors, judges, and legal advisers who worked at The Hague tribunal be employed as monitors in the regional judiciary in BiH in order to prosecute high-ranking military and political figures. This suggestion ultimately seeks to bring satisfaction to victims and achieve stronger coexistence in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

- Former ICTY cases fall to national courts

The ICTY closed in Dec. 2017. During its work, it brought a total of 90 indictments against high-ranking persons from the former Yugoslavia. Its successor, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), has completed the appeal against Radovan Karadzic, the first president of Republika Srpska, sentencing him to life in prison for the genocide committed in Srebrenica, the shelling and sniping of Sarajevo citizens, taking international personnel as hostages, and crimes committed in other Bosnian municipalities.

The trial of Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, former members of the Serbian State Security Service, charged with crimes committed in BiH, is being held at the IRMCT, and so is the appeal of Ratko Mladic, a war commander of the Republika Srpska Army, who was also given a life sentence for the genocide in Srebrenica and other crimes committed in BiH.

Following the closure of the ICTY, war crime trials were left to the national courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia. The Court of BiH continued its trials and, from 2005 to 2018, convicted a total of 217 men and five women for crimes committed all over BiH. However, in the past two years, the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) Mission to BiH believe that there has been a sharp drop in the number of convictions delivered by the Court of BiH, and that if it continues at this pace, it will take the BiH Prosecutor’s Office another ten years to complete the cases.

According to official data from the Court of BiH, from 2005 to 2018, 106 persons were released, acquitted of charges of war crimes.

Gordana Tadic, the chief prosecutor of the Prosecutor's Office of BiH, told reporters during the launch of the OSCE report earlier in June that 150 less complex cases were requested to be transferred to the Cantonal District and Prosecutor’s Offices of the Brcko District. She added that those cases, as of yet, could not be prosecuted because there was no State Strategy for War Crimes Cases.

In 2008, the National War Crimes Processing Strategy was adopted, creating a deadline of seven years for processing complex cases. Since the deadlines for processing war crimes cases were not met, changes have been made to the strategy. According to the Revised Strategy, all complex cases should be completed by 2023. However, amendments to this strategy have not yet been adopted by the Council of Ministers.

Hukovic-Hodzic said it was necessary to start working at full capacity because witnesses were “biologically disappearing” as too much time was being spent on agreeing to various strategies, because of which the whole process was failing to produce the desired results.

- Scale of crimes

Saric believes that the sentences delivered for the crimes committed against Bosniaks, which are being prosecuted by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina against lower-ranking persons, are “absurd, given the scale of the crimes that occurred as well as the extent of the crimes, which can be easily understood if one just looks at The Hague tribunal's website.”

Hasecic said they were not happy with the decision to refer rape and sexual assault cases to lower (entity) courts.

“There have been cases when the surviving victim was a witness in the city where she survived sexual abuse and where her family members were killed. Witnesses have to meet the perpetrators’ relatives on a daily basis, and even though they are protected witnesses, their identities have been revealed,” she said.

Hasecic can be called a brave champion of victims’ rights because she has not yielded to the numerous attempts to subdue her: she has been attacked with firearms three times, and her personal property was damaged as well as the vehicle owned by the Women - Victims of War Association, while she was trying to mark the locations of the assaulted Bosniaks in Visegrad.

“They killed me once already and all they have to do now is kill my soul,” Hasecic said, stating that she was not afraid and would not give up her fight for the rights of victims and prosecuting those responsible.

What is especially painful is that Serbia does not want to arrest and prosecute those responsible for war crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The state of BiH made the disastrous mistake of giving dual citizenship to war crimes suspects even though they were in the database from the lists used at The Hague tribunal. About 80 percent of BiH’s war criminals are now in Serbia, which gave them refuge and became a promised land for them,” Hasecic also said.

Sijacic reminds that of the total of 11 indictments filed in 2018 and 2019, eight were brought in BiH.

“These are indictments of so-called ‘less complex’ cases, Sijacic said, referring to war crimes involving a small number of victims and the absence of indictments against high-ranking perpetrators. She pointed out that it would be wrong to conclude, based on the ICTY termination, that the need to prosecute war crimes had disappeared.

“Prosecutors and regional courts need to continue where the ICTY stopped,” Sijacic said.

- No political will

Regional co-operation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Republic of Serbia and Croatia, according to Hukovic-Hodzic, has never been fully realized, because “there was never a political will,” despite the co-operation agreements signed by the parties involved.

Vidovic pointed out that the absence of the Hague Tribunal was very noticeable. The tribunal not only worked on investigations but also, at the same time, there was then very close cooperation between all the countries in the region, to which they were obliged to.

“The tribunal issued warrants and remanded cases where certain persons were suspected of having committed a war crime. All prosecutors had very close cooperation with the competent prosecuting authorities. Now this has all been reduced because the [current] mechanism has a smaller capacity,” Vidovic said. She added that it would be very useful if the knowledge of prosecutors and others who worked at the tribunal would not go to waste but was rather used by hiring them as advisors or monitors to make investigations in the region more expeditious and of better quality.

Saric agrees with the proposal that the international community should be engaged more, explaining that the last phase of the genocide -- denial -- was what was now playing out in BiH.

Speaking about the stage of denial, she mentioned that the government of Republika Srpska had set up two commissions on crimes in Srebrenica and in relation to the sufferings in Sarajevo, despite the Hague verdicts, which already determined what happened during the war.

According to the Hague verdicts, after the Republika Srpska Army (VRS) captured Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed, while Sarajevo citizens were exposed to the shelling and sniper attacks of the VRS on a daily basis.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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