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Courts and Prosecutor’s Offices in Bosnia have completely different stances on the availability of indictments and verdicts to the public.
What is a public document for one is a secret one for others, and for others again it is partially available.
Some judicial institutions do not respond to email requests for information, even when sent to the official contact address.
Research by BIRN Justice Report regarding public access to court documents showed that 36 courts and prosecutor’s offices address the requirements for obtaining an indictment or a verdict in different ways.
The High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina could not answer whether practice should be standardized regarding this matter, or which documents should be publicly available.
To journalists, especially those working on investigative stories, this uneven standard hinders their work, reducing the level of awareness among the public, including victims, about war crimes trials.
“For journalists, it is hard to manage in the system of access to information applied by the courts in Bosnia,” Renata Radic-Draganic, from the Centre for Investigative Journalism, said.
“In some courts, you can get an indictment and an insight into the whole case, which means so much to journalists when they are doing a story which is substantiated by facts and documents,” she added.
Victims rely on media
Bakira Hasecic, president of the “Woman Victims of War” association, says victims can be properly informed of court proceedings only through the media, taking into account the long wait to receive information from judicial institutions.
“We have to ask why they don’t give information, why they just put the initials, why only half of the verdict is delivered,” she said. “My feeling is it’s done on purpose to protect the perpetrators. If it were not for BIRN, we would not know about a lot of information,” Hasecic added.
The step by step “closure” of judicial institutions towards the public began more than two years ago, after the Agency for Protection of Personal Data ordered the removal of an indictment from the website of the Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A series of meetings between the Agency, the Prosecution and the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina then took place.
At the end of the consultations, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina began posting verdicts on its website, in which, instead of personal names and other names, only initials were put. It subsequently limited the use of audio and video recordings to up to ten minutes.
The Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina interpreted the Agency for Protection of Personal Data even more drastically and decided that the indictments could not be made accessible to the public at all, even if edited.
Prosecutor’s Offices in Sarajevo, Trebinje, East Sarajevo, and Courts in Odzak and Sarajevo now follow that line. In their responses, they stated that they could not release any indictments or verdicts because of reasons to do with protection of personal data.
Journalist Radic-Draganic notes the wide varieties in terms of standards in Bosnia’s judicial institutions.
“When we requested second-instance verdicts for persons amnestied by the Basic Court in Banja Luka, they said they had nothing against it, but they needed approval from the persons to whom the verdicts applied… who would not allow disclosure,” Radic-Draganic said.
On the other hand, 12 courts and prosecutor’s offices said there were no obstacles to publishing the entire court document.
The most open institutions to the public are the courts in Mostar, Siroki Brijeg Livno, Bijeljina and Gorazde, and the prosecutor’s offices in Bihac, Mostar, Banja Luka, Tuzla, Zenica, Travnik and Livno.
The Court in Doboj offered partial access to information, as do judicial institutions in Brcko. Their verdicts and indictments are available with edited names, as is done by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Supreme Court of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the cantonal and district courts in Tuzla, Zenica, Travnik, Trebinje and Banja Luka, as well as the prosecution in Siroki Brijeg did not send any answer regarding requested verdicts or indictments.
The war victims Associations says it often has to insist in order to get any information, even when it is matter of victims, who, according to the verdicts, have a right to seek compensation.
“We are fighting. For 50 per cent of the victims we still did not get the verdicts, although as damaged parties, they need the verdict in order to file a compensation claim,” Hasecic said.
From the basis of the explanation of the judicial institutions that refuse to provide documents, it appears they believe protecting the identity of individuals at all stages of procedure is the priority.
The prosecutor’s offices justify their inability to submit indictments on the grounds that the person is just being charged, or they shift responsibility to the court that confirmed the indictment.
Courts of first instance say that they should wait for the second-instance verdict, and when the process is completed, the convicted person blocks delivery of the judgment.
The juridical community has yet to find the balance between the right of the public to be informed and the protection of personal data of individuals who have been indicted or convicted.