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Former Bosnian Serb Army soldier Sinisa Milojcic was first indicted by military prosecutors as long ago as 1994 for his alleged crimes, committed a year earlier during the Bosnian war.
But it seems that Milojcic, who is now a Swedish citizen, may never appear in court to answer the charges against him.
After the war ended in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the District Prosecution in Banja Luka took over the case, reclassified the offence as a war crime against civilians, and issued a warrant for Milojcic’s arrest.
According to the indictment, Milojcic is charged with having participated, along with two other Bosnian Serb soldiers, Miladin Trivic and Slobodan Bajic, in the rape and murder of a woman at the Mirnica riverside beach in Vrbanja in 1993.
He is also charged with abusing and robbing Bosniak civilians, in collaboration with Trivic. Trivic and Bajic were convicted in 2009 and sentenced to a total of 23 years in prison.
However the District Prosecution in Banja Luka was informed by Interpol in February 2008 that Milojcic had Swedish citizenship, and the Banja Luka District Court ruled that the criminal prosecution should be handed over to the Swedish judiciary.
But in 2012, Sweden rejected the request because its legislation puts a 15-year statute of limitations on crimes committed by people who were aged between 18 and 21 at the time of the offence – even if that offence is a war crime.
Rikard Ekman, one of the investigators at the Swedish Interior Ministry’s War Crimes Unit, told BIRN that he had worked on Milojcic’s case until it was decided that the statute of limitations had expired.
“As a result, this case could not be taken over [by Sweden] and we could not approve his extradition [to Bosnia] either,” Ekman explained.
“Had Sinisa Milojcic turned 21 when the alleged crimes were committed, there would have been no expiry of the limitation period. If a person is less than 21 years old, there is the limitation period, even for the gravest crimes. However, it is not applicable to cases in which the perpetrators were more than 21 years old,” he added.
The legal provision has attracted criticism from war victims’ associations in Bosnia, as Ekman admitted: “I fully understand that the Swedish law can be considered deficient and unfair with regards to this matter,” he said.
Bakira Hasecic, the president of the Women, Victims of War association, told BIRN that she was in contact with the Swedish embassy in Sarajevo in 2010 and 2013 and asked if any way could be found to prosecute Milojcic.
Hasecic said she was given indications that the law might be revised, but this didn’t happen, so she addressed the Swedish embassy with her request again this month. She said she told the embassy that she would take the issue to the European Court of Human Rights and to the United Nations, if necessary.
“If they cannot extradite him, we demand that they process him in Sweden. He is not the only one who has found refuge in that country. It is inconceivable that someone is granted amnesty, that there’s a statute of limitations; it’s disastrous,” she said.
‘The most heinous crimes’
Kevin Jon Heller, an expert in international law at the Amsterdam University, told BIRN that the Swedish law was “unusual, considering that international tribunals have always set the age limit for responsibility at the legal age, ie. 18 years”.
But, he added: “I don’t think international law forbids the existence of statute of limitations in war-crime cases.”
Heller noted that in 1968, the UN General Assembly adopted a convention prohibiting limitation periods for war crime cases, arguing that war crimes and crimes against humanity are “the most heinous crimes in international law”.
But because Sweden has not signed the convention, Heller said the Bosnian authorities have no possibility of filing a complaint to the UN.
Bosnian lawyer Krstan Simic, a former judge with the state-level Constitutional Court, argued that Sweden is allowing war criminals to go free.
“Such a stance by the Swedish authorities sends a message that war crime perpetrators can be granted amnesty if they fulfil standards set by a certain country. I hope that the Swedish authorities will realise that, no matter who the perpetrators are, war crimes have no skin colour or nationality, but are just monstrous acts,” Simic said.
“I hope they will find a way to extradite or try the people who have been accused of these crimes,” he added.
Simic observed that Sweden had made an exception to its own rules in the case of former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, who served her war crimes sentence in the Scandinavian country after being convicted of persecuting Bosniaks and Croats during the war.
“In Sweden, when a person reaches certain age, they can no longer be held in prison and have to be released,” Simic explained.
“In Plavsic’s case, considering that it was about grave war crimes, which she had admitted and which had been established by the verdict, the Swedish authorities agreed not to apply their domestic law, so Plavsic had to serve two-thirds of her sentence [instead of being granted early release,” he said.
Lawyer Vasvija Vidovic, who has worked on war crimes cases in The Hague, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Scandinavia, pointed out meanwhile that Bosnian laws also foresee specific situations in which younger adults are treated more leniently.
“In our country they can be tried for war crimes, but if they committed the crimes as young adults, the maximum penalty of long term imprisonment cannot be pronounced,” Vidovic said.
But Hasecic argued that Sweden should pay more attention to the rights of war crime victims, particularly as Milojcic is not the only suspect at large in the country.
“There are several of them… Some of them have even changed their names there,” she said.
Asked if Sweden has considered revising the law, Rikard Ekman said his team at the Swedish Interior Ministry’s War Crimes Unit had not raised the issue, but insisted that there was “constant contact” with the Swedish Justice Ministry about the application of the legislation.
BIRN was not able to contact Milojcic for a comment.