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The Bosnian state-level judiciary achieved “significantly poorer results” in prosecuting war crimes, corruption and organised crime cases in 2017 compared to previous years, Milan Tegeltija, the president of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, the country’s judicial overseer, admitted to BIRN in an interview.
But despite this, Tegeltija said that he was a “moderate optimist” about 2018 being a better year.
He explained that he expected the state-level prosecution to focus on high level perpetrators and to send the remaining, lower-level cases to entity-level prosecutions, adding that he was encouraged by a flurry of indictments issued in late December by the state prosecution.
“We are witnesses that in the last few days – this is in the media – a lot is happening in war crimes cases; a lot of arrests, a lot of indictments. I think that is a good sign,” said Tegeltija.
The Bosnian prosecution also raised a large number of indictments in previous Decembers – something seen as just an attempt by prosecutors to complete an annual quota before the year’s end.
But Tegeltija, who was born in Pancevo in Serbia in 1971, has been a lawyer since 1997 and was appointed president of the HJPC three-and-a-half years ago, said that he could see a difference this time.
“What I can see from the media, I don’t think these are arrests and indictments just to fill a quota… I think these are more commanding officers, not just guards in camps… I think these are cases from the sphere of the most serious war crimes cases and I think this is not the same case as the practice that has certainly existed before to fill a quota,” he insisted.
One of the stories which had wide resonance in 2017 was the HJPC’s reaction to allegations made after the contrioversial verdict which acquitted the Bosnian Army’s former Srebrenica commander Naser Oric of war crimes against Serb prisoners of war.
The Bosnian Serb authorities accused the state judicial authorities of anti-Serb bias in the Oric trial and other war crimes cases, and Republika Srpska’s Centre for the Research of War Crimes gave the HJPC a list of 15 judges and prosecutors who it claimed were working against the interests of the Serb people.
In response, the HJPC decided to introduce mechanisms to check the wartime records of judges and prosecutors.
Tegeltija insisted that despite criticism from professional associations, NGOs and the international community, this was not a mistake.
“There are, certainly, people who may have done some things in their lives which, if we had known about them, would have stopped them from being named as judicial professionals. We must have a mechanism to react to such situations,” he explained.
He argued that the legislation governing the HJPC’s work envisages that employees must not have dubious records.
“In the HJPC Law, it says that judges and prosecutors should be persons of high moral values, and now if we find out that we named a person because we did not know something about their past, and we do not have a mechanism to react, then that person is cemented into the system,” he said.
Asked to explain the severity of the backlash from the EU and professional associations, Tegeltija said that the HJPC’s conclusions were badly interpreted, but that the misunderstanding was resolved when they were reformulated to drop the idea of changing the law to allow judges and prosecutors to be removed without a disciplinary procedure. The issue will now be dealt with as part of regular EU-Bosnia ‘structured dialogue’ talks on justice issues.
Poor results, but better to come?
Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted a state war crimes strategy in 2008 which envisaged that all complex war crimes cases would be resolved at the state level by 2015 and the remaining cases at the entity level by 2023.
The targets were not reached – as 2018 gets under way, hundreds of complex war crimes investigations remain open, and a new strategy to reflect the reality of the situation is currently being put together.
Tegeltija said that this spring, a new chief prosecutor will be named, which will speed up war crimes prosecutions, as well as corruption and organised crime cases.
“I think that 2018 will become a year which will show us the trend for the future,” he said.
“It would be wrong to think that in 2018 we will solve all the problems – we will not. However, I am certain that in 2018 we will have a positive trend of judicial improvement and that trend, I am certain, will be a good one,” he added.
For over a year, the Bosnian prosecution has been headed by acting chief prosecutor Gordana Tadic.
The previous chief prosecutor, Goran Salihovic, was suspended in September 2016 following allegations of abuse of office. After a disciplinary case against Salihovic was launched by the HJPC, he was removed from office, while a criminal investigation is still ongoing.
“I think that we should look at 2017 as a year in which the acting chief prosecutor tried to set the system so that in the future it can achieve better results,” argued Tegeltija.
He did not however wish to comment on the large number of disciplinary complaints against prosecutors which were filed during the 15-month period in which Tadic has been running the office, insisting that the right time to do this will be when he reviews the official report for 2017.
“It is hard to give a complete assessment now… it would be more speculative and not based on formal documents… What is certain, however, is that taking over the prosecutor’s office after the suspension of chief prosecutor Goran Salihovic was not easy, and expecting someone to take on that institution with all its problems and interpersonal issues was an aggravating factor,” said Tegeltija.
Twenty fewer war crimes indictments were raised in 2017 than in the previous year, while changes to the national war crimes strategy have been delayed. Tegeltija admits that the picture looks bad but insists that better is to come.
“No one is happy about what was done in respect to war crimes, even though this is very difficult. Our previous strategy was not implemented and the new strategy is being drafted. Our representative in that working group is actively involved and this is a fundamental document which should define future work,” he said.
“I am an optimist that we will have a new strategy and that in the next year or two, all the war crimes prosecutions will be speeded up.”