Radovan Karadzic’s Conviction Highlights Entrenched Divisions

24. December 2019.11:23
Bosniaks applauded the life sentence handed down in 2019 to Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, but Serb politicians condemned it and analysts warned that each ethnic group still has its own version of the truth about the war.

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“He deserved nothing less than life imprisonment,” said Nura Alispahic from Srebrenica, whose two sons were killed.

The verdict was also welcomed by Bosniak politicians – but political leaders in the country’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity said it proved that the UN court was anti-Serb.

Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency, called the verdict “cynical and arrogant”.

He argued that because of it, post-war reconciliation has become “nearly impossible”.

One country, three truths
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s continuing problem is that each of its three main ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – has its own version of the truth, which is obstructing the country’s progress, said veteran legal expert Vehid Sehic.

“We are still not ready to face the truth, and there can only be one. Unfortunately, there are three truths in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Politicians regularly heat up the atmosphere by glorifying war criminals. The truth is bitter, but it is the best cure for reconciliation,” Sehic said.

Aleksandra Letic of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Republika Srpska argued that transitional justice has taken a few steps back in 2019.

“We are going backwards. The verdict against Karadzic, which was supposed to open up some dialogue, has not lead to social catharsis. That demonstrates how much we are disinterested in truth institutionally,” Letic said.

In 2019, the government of Republika Srpska appointed members to two controversial commissions it has set up to re-examine wartime events from its own perspective – the Commission for Investigating the Suffering of Serbs in Sarajevo in the Period Between 1991 and 1995 and the Commission for Investigating the Suffering of All Peoples in the Srebrenica Area from 1992 to 1995.

The director of Republika Srpska’s government-supported Centre for Research on War, War Crimes and Missing Persons, Milorad Kojic, said the commissions’ goal was “just to determine the truth”.

“There can only be one truth. These are international commissions, which will work without pressure. We expect them to determine the truth,” Kojic said.

However, a group of 31 international academics warned in an open letter that the commissions appear to be attempts to question established truths about the Srebrenica massacres and the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces.

Republika Srpska leaders do not accept that the Srebrenica massacres constituted genocide, despite the verdicts of international and domestic courts.

Meanwhile Bosnia and Herzegovina’s revised national strategy for war crimes cases, which was given assent by the country’s judicial overseer, the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, in 2018, is still waiting for approval by the state-level Council of Ministers before it can be implemented.

The revised strategy envisages that all war crimes cases will be completed by 2023, and was produced after deadlines set in the country’s initial strategy were missed. However, it again failed to make it onto the Council of Ministers’ agenda before the elections in October, and since then the country has suffered an extended period of political deadlock.

There is still a huge backlog of hundreds of unprosecuted war crimes cases, and the Association of Detainees warned that as time passes, fewer and fewer witnesses remain alive.

“There are probably no new pieces of evidence, no new witnesses, while witnesses and victims are dying, biologically disappearing, so the entire prosecution process, in my opinion, is just a dead end,” said Jasmin Meskovic, the head of the association.

Meanwhile the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE raised concerns that the rate of convictions in war crimes cases before the Bosnian state court has been dropping at an alarming pace.

The outgoing head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bruce Berton, told BIRN he was concerned that “insufficient justice” had been achieved for victims of war crimes nearly a quarter of a century after the conflict.

“The pace of prosecutions is too slow, the conviction rate is too low,” Bertin said.

Concerns were also raised during the year that increasingly fewer of the remaining 7,000 wartime missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina are being found because witnesses who know about undiscovered mass graves are still unwilling to come forward, meaning that relatives are dying without learning the fate of their loved ones.

“Institutions have documents that could lead to discovery of graves, but they keep them locked in their drawers. Intelligence services and police bodies, which are in possession of information from 1991 and 1992, are hiding the data that investigators need,” said Emza Fazlic, spokesperson for Bosnia’s Missing Persons Institute.

Sarajevo pledges cash to help war suspects
In its budget for 2019, the Sarajevo Canton allocated around 358,000 euros to provide legal assistance to former soldiers and police officers – almost all of them Bosniaks – who have been charged with war crimes.

The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs said that the move did not mean that it justified crimes committed by members of the armed forces and police.

“We consider that everyone should be tried for their actions, but we want to help the accused and their families to defend themselves from accusations in a dignified manner and prevent revisions and distortion of historical facts about the aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was also established by the Hague Tribunal,” the ministry said.

Meanwhile in The Hague, Bosnian Serb wartime military chief Ratko Mladic warned again that his health is deteriorating.

Mladic, who is 76, has had several serious health problems while in detention and has suffered two strokes and a heart attack.

He has repeatedly complained about the medical care he has received in detention since 2011, when he was arrested and sent to The Hague, and has asked to be transferred to Serbia for treatment.

The UN court sentenced Mladic to life imprisonment in 2017, finding him guilty of genocide in Srebrenica, persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, terrorising the population of Sarajevo and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.

He is now contesting the verdict, and the court is due to hear his defence’s appeal in March next year, with the final judgment expected before by the end of 2020.

Admir Muslimović

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