Failure to prosecute anyone for war crimes in ten years blamed on fact that no one filed criminal charges. That has changed, but many victims feel it’s too late now.
Judicial authorities in Bosnia’s northern Posavina Canton lack the will and the capacity to prosecute war crimes, so that any future investigations will be probably transferred to the Cantonal Court in nearby Tuzla.
The Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office of Posavina Canton says the main reason why no war-crimes cases came before the courts in ten years is that they did not receive any criminal charges.
However, they say that this year they have received information regarding 45 cases involving 188 persons from the Doboj’s District Prosecutor’s Office and Brcko’s District Prosecutor’s Office, so they could soon open their first investigations.
However, till now, war crimes trials could not be conducted before the Cantonal Court in Odzak in any case due to the shortage of judges who could work on such cases and because the court lacks adequate protection measures for witnesses.
While all future legal proceedings in Bosnia will be conducted before a court chosen by the Supreme Court of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, FBiH, judicial officials in Posavina assume any cases in their area will be transferred to Tuzla, which is close to them.
The work of the judiciary in Posavina, or lack of it, has drawn criticism from victims from the area who claim there is no “will” to prosecute people responsible for war crimes.
Many deaths, few court cases:
The judiciary in Posavina is responsible for the area of Odzak, Orasje and Domaljevac-Samac. According to the Research and Documentation Centre, IDC, based in Sarajevo, about 1,000 persons dead or went missing in this area in the 1992-5 war.
Ferid Halilovic, a former camp guard in Odzak, is the only person convicted so far before courts in Bosnia for crimes committed in Posavina. In 1998 the District Court in Doboj sentenced him to 15 years in prison in a second-instance verdict.
In October 2003 the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, sentenced Simo Zaric, a former chief of national security in Bosanski Samac and deputy president of the civic council in the municipality of Odzak, for crimes committed in Odzak and Bosanski Samac to six years in prison in a second-instance verdict.
In addition, the Military Court in Orasje and High Court in Bosanski Brod after the war convicted 47 persons in absentia for various crimes committed in the territory that now forms the Posavina Canton.
All 47 processes were conducted in the absence of the accused, which was permitted by the then valid Yugoslav criminal code. These verdicts sentenced 13 people to death. These sentences were subsequently replaced by 20 years in prison. The death penalty was abolished in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1998.
Marija Colic, president of the Cantonal Court in Odzak, says that the warrants have been withdrawn for the 47 convicted. In accordance with current law, these cases must be returned to the investigative stage.
“These are cases about crimes committed in Bosanski Samac, and the judicial authorities in Doboj should take them over now because they now come under their jurisdiction,” Colic said.
Verdicts pronounced “in absentia” created a legal problem because they are second-instance verdicts but the indictees do not always even know that they have been charged, Colic added.
Back to the beginning:
Luka Dabic, chief prosecutor of the Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office of Posavina Canton, says they should soon start their first investigations for war crimes.
They did not do so before because “we did not have the basic conditions and we did not receive a single criminal charge”.
“Prosecutors cannot walk through the villages and towns and look for cases,” he said. “There are institutions in charge of discovering or reporting criminal offences. Only when we get a report on a crime we can start to work,” he added.
“The exception would be if a prosecutor directly found out about a crime, but such prosecutors were not here,” Dabic said.
Dabic said that they now expected to open investigations into four cases.
In addition, they expect a response from the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina concerning a further 41 cases sent for evaluation. Those cases were supplied to them by the District Prosecutor’s Office in Doboj and the Brcko District Prosecutor’s Office.
“In these four cases nothing has been done so far, so we have to start from the very beginning. I cannot say how complex they are,” Dabic said.
“These are investigations in which we do not know where the witnesses are, how to find them, or how to collect evidence”, Dabic added.
According to the National Strategy for the Prosecution of War Crimes Cases, adopted in December 2008 all prosecutors in Bosnia are obliged to submit cases to the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is in charge of the transfer of cases to various lower courts.
Under the strategy, less “sensitive” war-crime cases are transferred to the lower courts and prosecutor’s offices, while “sensitive” cases, including cases of murder and rape, or involving senior persons, remain before the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As Dabic stressed, depending on the assessment of the cases, a certain number of cases will be returned to the Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office for processing.
But a new problem arise there, as war crime trials cannot be conducted before the court in Odzak in its current capacity. Dabic said: “We need five judges to work on one war-crime case and we currently have only four [judges].
“If we received such a case, we would only be able to work on it if the person was not in custody,” Judge Colic added.
The court, Colic explained, has no technical capacities to adequately protect witnesses, such as changing their voices, enabling them to testify from another room and similar facilities.
This problem might be solved either by transferring the cases to the nearest court, in this case the Cantonal Court in Tuzla, or by hiring new judges.
Under existing law, in cases where a court is unable to act in a certain case because of a lack of judges, their illness, exclusion, or the expiration of their mandate, it is permissible to delegate the case to another court of equal rank.
Milorad Novkovic, President of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, VSTV, says that the courts in Gorazde, eastern Bosnia, and in Siroki Brijeg, in the southwest, are in the similar situation to the court in Orasje; they also cannot handle war-crime trials.
He further explained that the appointment of new judges in Gorazde and Odzak is not possible because those courts do not have enough cases today to warrant such appointments.
“If there is a lack of cases, you cannot employ new judges. They would have nothing to do because they wouldn’t have enough cases to work on,” Novkovic said.
Too late now:
Posavina’s Cantonal Prosecution Office addressed the VSTV this year, seeking the employ of two new prosecutors to be involved in war-crime cases because of the expected influx of new cases.
The VSTS has said it will reach a decision on the eventual hiring of the new prosecutors at one of its next sessions.
Prosecutor Dabic hopes the decision will go in their favour so that they can intensify work on cases and assuage the bitterness felt by many victims.
Vlado Dragojlovic is one. He says he was detained for more than seven months in various camps in northern Bosnia, including Odzak and Orasje, and in Croatia.
He says that while detainees were mistreated, tortured and killed, few people have been held responsible for these crimes.
“Nobody is talking about those who formed the camps and knew about them,” said Dragojlovic, head of the Association of Detainees from Modrica, which gathers together victims from the Posavina region.
“I believe there is no good will to prosecute those responsible,” he said.
Anto Orsolic, president of the Association of Croatian War Veterans, from Odzak, agrees. All war crimes should be prosecuted but it is questionable whether that will happen now, he said.
“If, 17 years after the crimes were committed, nothing has been done, half the witnesses have died and the evidence has disappeared, I don‘t know whether it is even necessary to do it,” he said.
“In all those years no one has done anything about it. I think it is too late now,” Orsolic said.
Aida Alic is a journalist of BIRN – Justice Report. [email protected] Justice Report is BIRN’s weekly online publication.
This article is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID.) The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of Balkan investigative reporting network (BIRN) and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.