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Concerns have been raised after the appeals chambers of the Bosnian court made 20 decisions in 2014, only three of which confirmed in full the first-instance war crimes verdict. In all the other cases, the verdicts were either quashed or amended.
The court has claimed that quashed verdicts are normal, as it is the role of appeals chambers to correct mistakes, so there is no need for concern.
But legal experts believe that such a large number of overturned verdicts mean that first-instance chambers make too many mistakes and that their work is much poorer than that of their colleagues working on appeals.
The Bosnian court’s president, Meddzida Kreso, told BIRN that she “cannot and will not” comment on the work of judges.
But she admitted: “It is clear that as with any profession, there are responsible people who are doing their job well and others who are not.”
The biggest outrage over quashed verdicts was caused in November last year, when former Bosnian Serb policeman Goran Saric was acquitted of war crimes in Sarajevo. Saric was found not guilty despite the fact that he was sentenced to 14 years under the first-instance verdict.
Lawyer Vlado Adamovic, who has worked on a significant number of war crimes cases for several years, said that the perception that first-instance chambers are not as good as appeals is founded in facts, and that many judges in the first-instance chambers do not have enough experience.
“There is too big a gap between the first-instance and appeals chambers. In first-instance, you have judges who have done only traffic cases before, and they are doing war crimes now,” Adamovic said.
“In appeals, you have a judge who passed all levels from internship in a municipal court to presiding over a chamber in the supreme court. That tells you that those two judges do not speak the same legal language,” he said.
He said that the most alarming things were that basic mistakes were made.
“When you compare the first and second-instance verdicts, you can see as a layman that the appeals chamber is correct. If five out of ten verdicts have mistakes in knowledge of the [judicial] craft, then we have a bad judge. Such a mistake is like a journalist who doesn’t know how to spell,” he explained.
Adamovic suggested that the Bosnian court should give first-instance war crimes cases to experienced judges, a view shared by veteran lawyer Vasvija Vidovic.
“In my experience, even in The Hague, the first-instance verdicts are led by a bad indictment and sometimes they want to cover the detention or are influenced by the stories of the victims, and they forget about the essence of the case and make mistakes. Sometimes they don’t make sure that all evidence is available to the defence and it is normal that those verdicts are quashed,” Vidovic said.
Kreso insisted however that it was normal for appeals chambers to correct mistakes made in first-instance proceedings.
“Appeals chambers have a role to fix mistakes and that is all fine. Judges are not infallible and this is why we have an appeal system to guarantee good application of laws and procedures,” she explained.
Vidovic said however that there should be more supervision of first-instance judges in order to minimise mistakes.
“I see there are good judges, trained judges, but you also have those who make mistakes. They accept all the evidence into the file or don’t allow the defence to question witnesses. Those are basic things and it is clear such cases will be redone,” Vidovic said.
“Before the war, when I was a judge, the control was much stricter and I think we should have that again,” she concluded.