Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Balkan Prosecutors Discuss Cooperation

Working together to bring war crimes suspects to justice was the subject of a recent regional prosecutors’ conference in Belgrade.
By Aleksandar Roknić

Regional cooperation in bringing to trial those responsible for crimes committed during the bitter conflicts of the Nineties was high on the agenda when war crimes prosecutors from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia met recently in Belgrade.

Dubbed Regional Justice, the early February conference was a chance for prosecutors to evaluate cooperation efforts so far and seek out ways to advance them further.

When the Hague tribunal closes down in 2010, the burden of bringing war crimes suspects to justice will rest solely on the prosecutors from the countries of the former Yugoslavia. And judging by the sheer number of cases they have to deal with, they will be busy for years, if not even decades.

State prosecutors from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia signed an agreement in 2005 to improve cooperation. Under the terms of the deal, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo are required to exchange intelligence that could help efforts to investigate war crimes.

This regional cooperation is seen as major breakthrough in the prosecution of war crimes in the Balkans. Until recently, that was almost unimaginable, but today state prosecutors in the region exchange information and documents, and prosecutors of one state can go to another to investigate war crimes and even examine witnesses.

However, the process doesn’t always go smoothly.

One of the main obstacles in the otherwise successful cooperation between countries is the question of where the accused should be tried. Bosnia and Croatia are adamant suspects must stand trial in the country where the alleged war crime took place, while Serbia believes the trial should take place in the country where they are arrested.

To make matters worse, all three claim it’s against their constitution to hand over their own citizens to any other country for trial, except to an international court like the Hague tribunal.

The efficiency of local judiciaries becomes even more important in light of the Hague tribunal’s completion strategy. The court is expected to close its doors in 2010, leaving courts in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia with a daunting task of prosecuting thousands of war crimes cases. In Bosnia alone, some 13,000 people have been reported to the local authorities so far. However, no one seems to know how many will be prosecuted, or how long it will be before all cases are closed.

The Bosnian state prosecutor, Marinko Jurcevi, told the Belgrade conference that everyone in Bosnia has been affected by the war in one way or another.

“There isn’t a single person in this country who hasn’t either lost their relatives, or their property,” he said.

“Punishing war crimes perpetrators is essential for the future of people in Bosnia and the region,” said Jurcevic, adding that trying suspects is the only way the burden of collective guilt can be lifted from the countries involved.

Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, agrees that trust, friendly relationships and professionalism are the “key to the door of justice and the improvement of regional cooperation in prosecuting war crimes suspects”.

“We gave each other a hand and started to solve problems together, at least the most sensitive ones,” he said, adding this is the best way to show respect to all victims who lost their lives during the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Speaking at the conference, Croatia’s deputy state prosecutor Josip Cule said regional cooperation is working and that Croatia has sent five cases to the Serbian state prosecutor’s office.

The spokesperson for the tribunal’s prosecution, Olga Kavran, said Hague prosecutors strongly support this regional cooperation.

“We are aware that local judiciaries in the former Yugoslavia have to deal with a huge task of prosecuting hundreds, maybe thousands, of war crimes suspects who will not be tried at the Hague tribunal,” said Kavran.

She explained that the tribunal has prosecuted 100 people so far, which is expected to rise to 130 by the end of its mandate. Kavran added that several dozen cases are currently in the investigation phase and will be transferred to local prosecutors.

However, one of their biggest problems is that evidence obtained by one country’s prosecutors is not valid in the neighbouring courts. The only war crimes evidence accepted universally in the courts of the former Yugoslavia is that gathered by the Hague prosecutors.

However, the spokesman for Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor’s office, Bruno Vekaric, points out that this problem was solved in some cases when prosecutors set up investigation teams on a regional level.

“Our idea is to form common investigation teams comprised of prosecutors from the whole region,” said Vekaric.

The spokesman for the Bosnian state prosecutor, Boris Grubesic, emphasises that direct communication between prosecutors has also helped.

“Cooperation between prosecutor’s offices is now much easier, because we communicate directly, not through justice ministries as it was the case in the past,” he said.

“Prosecutors can now call each other and demand documents they need urgently. So far, we have received more than 100 requests for documents, examination of the witnesses or exchanging evidence from the prosecutors in the region.”

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR reporter in Belgrade.