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The district prosecutor’s office in Banja Luka and legal experts fear their enormous efforts and good results in war crime processing to date will count for little if their capacities are not significantly strengthened, Justice Report has learnt.
The district court in Banja Luka has pronounced ten war crimes verdicts to date,which is considered to be a success given that only one prosecutor and two trial chambers are involved in these cases.
But analysts believe that these scant resources are not enough for an area where so many severe crimes were committed during the war.
Prosecutors complain about lack of witnesses and material evidence, but say that they are ready to process war crimes regardless.
Meanwhile, the victims – many of whom are potential witnesses – have asked the judiciary to be more flexible in choosing crimes to investigate and try. However, they have expressed their support for the prosecutor who deals with those cases.
The District Court in Banja Luka covers 21 municipalities: Banja Luka,Laktasi, Gradiska, Srbac, Kotor Varos, Celinac, Knezevo, Mrkonjic Grad, Sipovo, Jezero, Istocni Drvar, Drinic, Kupres in Republika Srpska, Ribnik, Novi Grad, Kostajnica, Krupa na Uni, Prijedor, Ostra Luka, Kozarska Dubica and Prnjavor.
According to data available to the Research and Documentation Centre (RDC), a non-governmental organisation based in Sarajevo, about 16,000 persons were killed on the territory of these municipalities during the 1992-95 war.
To date, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has pronounced 12 verdicts for crimes committed against Bosniaks and Croats from that area.
For crimes committed in Keraterm detention camp ICTY sentenced: Dusko Sikirica (15 years imprisonment); Predrag Banovic (eight years); Damir Dosen (five years) and Dragan Kolundzija (three years). For persecution, murder and torture in Omarska detention camp the Tribunal convicted: Mladjo Radic (20 years); Miroslav Kvocka(seven years); Milojica Kos (six years) and Dragoljub Prcac (five years), while Zoran Zigic was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment for crimes committed in Keraterm, Omarska and Trnopolje detention camps.
Darko Mrdja was sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment for crimes committed in Koricanske stijene on mount Vlasic, when 252 Bosniaks from Prijedor municipality were murdered. Milomir Stakic,president of the Crisis Committee of Prijedor municipality and chief of Municipal Council for National Defence, was sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment, while Radoslav Brdjanin, first vice president of the Assembly and President of the Crisis Committee of the Autonomous Region of Krajina (ARK), was sentenced to 30 years.
Indictments for genocide and war crimes were filed against Milan Kovacevic and Simo Drljaca, members of the Crisis Committee of Prijedor municipality. Drljaca was killed during an arrest operation, while Kovacevic died in the detention unit.
Stojan Zupljanin is still at large – one of four ICTY indictees who have so far evaded arrest.He is charged, as Chief of the Public Safety Centre in Banja Luka and a member of the Crisis Committee of ARK, with having committed crimes against humanity.
The ICTY referred the case of Zeljko Mejakic, Momcilo Gruban, Dusan Fustar and Dusko Knezevic – known as the Prijedor Four – to the Court of BiH for further processing. They are charged with rape,murder, torture and beating of Bosniaks and Croats held in Omarska and Keraterm detention camps in 1992, and are currently on trial in Sarajevo.
Verdicts pronounced by the Banja Luka court
From early 2005 to late 2007, the District Court in Banja Luka has pronounced ten verdicts, eight of which are legally binding second instance verdicts.
In 2000, the first case was referred to this court by the Military Court, which was abolished in that year. The indictment – filed on March 15, 1993, by the Military Prosecution with the First Krajina Corps Staff in Banja Luka – charged Milanko Vujanovic with the murder of five Bosniak civilians in Blagaj Rijeka, Novi Grad municipality, on October 19, 1992.
In December 2005, the regional prosecutor reclassified the criminal offence from murder to a “war crime against civilians”. At the end of the process, Vujanovic was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment.
The District Court in Banja Luka pronounced three verdicts in 2005. The first was a verdict of release, pronounced in February, in the case of Ranko Jakovljevic, Miroslav Cadjo, Mile Rodic, Drazen Rakovic, Rade Savic, Gojko Kesic, Zoran Banovic, Miroslav Zec, Djordje Jelcic, Zoran Milojica and Slobodan Muzgonja. They were acquitted of the charges that they committed war crimes against civilians. The indictment had charged them with having unlawfully imprisoned catholic priest Tomislav Matanovic and his parents in their family house and killed them in August 1995.
In November 2005, former reserve police officers Drago Radakovic, Radoslav Knezevic and Drasko Krndija were sentenced for the murder of six Bosniak civilians in Prijedor in 1994. Originally, the crime was classified as a severe robbery and murder but, after pressure from non-governmental organizations, it was reclassified as a war crime against civilians. Both Radakovic and Knezevic were sentenced, by a second instance verdict, to 10 years’ imprisonment, while Krndija was sentenced to 20 years.
The following month, Nikola Dereta was sentenced to ten years for war crimes against civilians.
In May 2006, the Court found Zeljko Bulatovic, Sinisa Teodorovic and Zoran Gajic guilty, as former members of the First Krajina Corps with the Republika Srpska Army, of having murdered two civilians, and tortured and treated in an inhumane manner the detainees in Manjaca detention camp. They were sentenced to 11, eight and six years respectively for war crimes against civilians. As part of the same case, Radenko Vucenovic and Milorad Topic were acquitted of the charges.
In April 2006,the prosecutor dismissed the criminal procedure against Robert Besir, a former member of the Territorial Defence of Prijedor,who was charged, under the same indictment as Pero Djuric and Stojan Besir,with the murder of one person. Djuric and Stojan Besir were sentenced to eight and seven years of imprisonment respectively.
In December 2006, Milojica Boro, a former member of the Emergency Action Squad with the Sixth Ljubija Battalion, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for having killed one person in 1992. This crime was also qualified as a war crime.
First instance verdicts have been pronounced in two cases. In February 2007, Sasa Lipovac and Drazen Nikic were acquitted of charges for war crimes against civilians committed in Liskovac village near Gradiska in 1993. The verdict indicated that the court was not able to determine their guilt beyond reasonable doubt “on the basis of the presented pieces of evidence”.
A first instance verdict pronounced in October 2007 found Goran Petic (sentenced to eight years), Zoran Djukic (seven years), Mladen Djukic (six years) and Goran Djukic (six years) guilty of the charges. The verdict determined that the indictees murdered one person in Novi Grad in 1992.
Future indictments to be filed according to Criminal Code of BiH
All of the above indictments were filed over the past three years. Daniela Milovanovic, a judge with the Regional Courtin Banja Luka and chairwoman of one of the two trial chambers sitting in war crime cases,says that the prosecution and court apply the Criminal Code of SFRY, as per instructions by the Supreme Court of Republika Srpska, because that law was in force when the crimes were committed.
Citing the problems he is facing in his work, Prosecutor Branko Mitrovic mentioned the non-harmonised application of laws in BiH. As an example, he said that the Court of BiH, acting in line with the Criminal Procedure Code of BiH, admits statements given by suspects during investigation as evidence, while Banja Luka Court cannot do it as it applies the law of SFRY.
“At the trial for Manjaca crimes, three of the six indictees were acquitted of the charges. One of them defended himself with silence. Two others described, during the investigation, how they beat people and they also said that two detainees had died due to the beating. I could not include the investigation report in the material evidence,” said Mitrovic.
He explained that the prosecution had a situation “that someone admits guilt for some crime,but we cannot include that statement in the material evidence unless the person testifies at his trial”.
In addition to the problems concerning evidence, the prosecution also has to struggle with inherited indictments against unknown persons and indictments that contain inadequate qualification of criminal offences.
Criminal reports were filed during the war, but at that time war crimes cases were qualified as ordinary murder, rape and so on, and verdicts were pronounced accordingly.
“This is the relict of that period of our lives,” said Mitrovic.
“Many people were convicted by military courts on [the basis of charges of rape or murder],although they had actually committed war crimes,” said Mitrovic. “Some people considered it was unacceptable to prosecute your own people for war crimes. Therefore they qualified the crimes as murder, but we are now undertaking are-qualification“.
At the moment,Prosecutor Mitrović is dealing with 44 ongoing investigations. Some were opened at an earlier stage, but the criminal acts in question were qualified in a different way and some were opened against unknown persons.
“Police knew who the perpetrators were, but [chose to file] reports against unknown persons. In that way, the policemen fulfilled their duty without having to identify the perpetrators. More than 90 per cent of reports were filed in such a way. It also happened that some did not report the crimes at all,” says Mitrovic, who considers that the chances that such cases would be processed are very small.
Members of the Kezic family from Banja Luka, who live in Zadar, are still fighting to bring the persons who murdered Adolf Kezic to justice.
“Five persons dressed in camouflage, with stockings pulled over their heads, broke into our house on April 13, 1993. They killed my father in the presence of my mother and sister. The crime scene inspection was done the morning after and we were never given a report,” says Zlatan Kezic.
In January 2005 the Kezic family filed a suit containing names of the young men who they suspected of involvement in this crime.
The family told Justice Report that, in November this year, they received a piece of correspondence from the Public Safety Centre in Banja Luka indicating that the prosecution has filed an indictment against an unidentified person.
“This is the first piece of correspondence that we have received in 14 years, which actually says that my father was killed. We even had a document which said that my father died due to sickness,” says Zlatan Kezic.
Unavailable and unprotected witnesses
Milovanovic says that both the court and the prosecution have limited technical capacities. “We do not have any technical equipment, no financial support or education,“ he explains.
The limited capacities affect the trials, as it is not possible to provide witness protection. As an example, they mentioned a testimony of a protected witness,when the Trial Chamber examined the witness at a separate session and then read his statement in the courtroom. Only the party that invited the witness knew his personal details. There is no other way to protect witnesses.
Marija Anicic Zgonjanin, president of the Criminal Section with the Court in Banja Luka, considers that such examination of witnesses is not of much use.
“The statements are defective because, in the courtroom, you cannot read any statement which could lead to revelation of identity of the protected witness,” Zgonjanin told Justice Report.
“Witnesses can say something very important for the particular case, but if the indictee could figure out who the witness was by listening to his statement, that part of the statement is not read at all. This means that only some parts of the statements are read.”
However, the witness protection issue does not come up as frequently as the difficulty ingetting hold of witnesses.
Eyewitnesses or the families of injured parties mostly live outside BiH, and it can often be difficult to locate them. And as material evidence in such cases can be extremely scarce, witness statements are key evidence that can influence the outcome of trials.
Independent monitors who follow trials in Banja Luka agree that the unavailability of witnesses and lack of technical capacities for witness protection programmes represent difficulties, which can sometimes lead to pronouncement of verdicts of release.
Roving regional prosecutor
Only one prosecutor is employed in the War Crimes Section of the Prosecutor’s Office in Banja Luka. Prosecutor Branko Mitrovic usually examines all witnesses, and even visits them at their places of residence.
“I cannot expect an old lady to come from a faraway village to give a statement. Instead, I got here to speak to her,” he told JusticeReport.
An investigation team, consisting of four to five police inspectors, has been established to support the prosecutor in Banja Luka. Mitrovic considers that the filing of two to three indictments per year is a great success under the circumstances.
The Regional Prosecutor’s Office has been functioning in its current form since March 8,2004. The War Crimes Section is a part of the Department for Economic and Organised Crime. Since January 1, 2005, its activities on war crimes cases have been intensified.
Edin Ramulic from the Izvor Association in Prijedor,says he is “extremely satisfied with the work of prosecutor Mitrovic“.
“We think that he, as an individual, has been the most successful prosecutor in BiH in the past two years,“ Ramulic explains, adding that the Association cooperates with the Prosecution “by providing data on potential witnesses“ and transporting witnesses to trials as well as providing psychological experts’ support.
“The work of the trial chambers is also perfect, we are satisfied with their attitude. We are also content with the punishments, which are even more severe than the ones pronounced by the ICTY for similar crimes,“ says Ramulic.
At present, no war crimes trials are underway before the Regional Court in Banja Luka, but the prosecution intends to file new indictments next year.
Some suspects may not be tried before the Regional Court in Banja Luka because they live in Serbia and have citizenship of that country.
However, Mitrovic believes that such suspects “will not get away with it” and that the Special Prosecution in Belgrade will pursue them.
Meanwhile, in Prijedor – where more than 3,227 civilians were murdered according to data available to Izvor – Edin Ramulic reminds us of an absurdity of post-war life in this region.
“Most crimes committed on the territory of Prijedor municipality were perpetrated by Serbs from this area, who still live here,” says Ramulic. “At the same time, a large number of Bosniaks have returned to Prijedor. We meet each other every day.”
Victims claim that many of these alleged criminals hold high positions, even in public companies.
Ongoing investigations mainly relate to the Prijedorand Gradiska area. However, the available capacities do not promise much.Therefore the victims are afraid that many criminals who live close to them will not be processed.
“Boro Milojica and Pero Djuric, who were sentenced for murder, provided returnees with firewood for years. In addition, a person whom the ICTY associated with war crimes in Koricanske stijene, still lives in Prijedor. There is evidence against many who live peacefully in Prijedor. We therefore ask for faster and more efficient processing of war crimes committed in this area,” says Ramulic.
This article has been produced as part of BIRN’s Justice Series project “Local Justice under Spotlight”, which has been made possible by the support of American people through USAID.