Bosnia: Police Blamed for War Crimes

Local courts have shown no enthusiasm for prosecuting policemen cited by UN investigators as war crime suspects.

Bosnia: Police Blamed for War Crimes

Local courts have shown no enthusiasm for prosecuting policemen cited by UN investigators as war crime suspects.

More than 60 Bosnian law enforcement officers suspected of war crimes have been disqualified from service by UN police monitors during the past three months. So far none have been brought to justice.


Local judiciaries have shown a strong reluctance to take action. The Hague war crimes tribunal, ICTY, burdened by a high number of cases, takes the view that its role is to act only against major criminals, leaving underlings to national courts.


In most of the cases, not even an investigation was mounted - suspension from duty appears to be regarded as sufficient punishment in itself.


One of the few cases that went to court involved 9 Bosnian Serb policemen, from the northwestern town of Prijedor, who were accused of killing Catholic priest Tomislav Matanovic and his family at the end of the war.


After numerous procedural delays, the court hearing began on December 9 but was interrupted by a power failure. The authorities could not say when the trial would resume. Observers believe that top Bosnian Serb politicians wanted to delay the process in the hope of killing it off altogether, especially since the trial resulted from intense international pressure on Banja Luka.


The ICTY has deplored the lack of energy shown by local authorities. "It would be an absurd and tragic outcome if the prosecution of police for war crimes were to end with mere suspensions from duty," ICTY spokesman Refik Hodzic told IWPR.


Officially, local courts are obliged to prosecute all war criminals, especially those lower-rank suspects not liable for prosecution by The Hague. Once the courts gather enough material to release an indictment, they must wait for the tribunal to approve a local trial.


The sixty war crimes suspects came to light during the UN's certification of the local police. The process, conducted International Police Task Force, IPTF, began on October 18, 2002, and was designed to restructure the force as a democratic and professional civil service.


At the end of the war, Bosnia had more than 40,000 law enforcement officers with most of them having belonged to one armed faction or another during the war. Through rigorous vetting, the IPTF brought this number down to some 15,000. Some 64 were found unsuitable because of their war backgrounds.


The UN is currently finalising an appeal process in which policemen can challenge their dismissal.


In one case, a policeman from Republika Srpska, RS, was suspended because the IPTF identified him as an accomplice in the murder of at least eight Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) civilians in the village of Gornji Budelj in 1992 while he was a member of Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces.


In another case, two Bosniak policemen were dismissed after it was found that during the war they were investigators in a camp for Serb prisoners of war near Sarajevo, where inmates were physically and mentally abused.


In neither case was any investigation mounted.


It is assumed that most of the suspended policemen were from RS. Local police spokesman Zoran Glusic refused to comment on this matter, indicating only that


Some of the UN decisions could still be overturned on appeal.


Senka Nozica, Sarajevo lawyer and a member of the Helsinki Human Rights Committee for Bosnia-Herzegovina, expressed the belief that there was no political will on the part of authorities in either entity to prosecute criminals belonging to their respective community.


"Nothing can justify the failure of local police and district attorneys' offices to investigate charges unearthed by the IPTF," she told IWPR.


The failure to prosecute tells a tale about the state of Bosnia's judiciary which bodes ill for the ICTY intention to eventually refer low and mid-level cases over to local courts.


"The fact that in most cases the investigations were never launched shows that Bosnian prosecution bodies are incapable of dealing with war crimes," said Hodzic.


The international community in Bosnia has launched an intensive reform of the country's judiciary in order to support the establishment of a state court in mid January. It is forseen that a war crimes chamber within this court, to be set up by the end of the year, would be able to deal effectively with war crimes cases.


The process of issuing police certificates in Bosnia-Herzegovina was due to finish at the end of 2002, coinciding with the expiry of IPTF's mandate. Once all the legal remedies to IPTF's decisions are exhausted, the prosecution bodies in both Bosnian entities will face a heavy responsibility.


"There will then be no more excuses for not prosecuting war crime suspects in their midst," Nozica said.


Aldin Arnautovic is editor-in-chief of the Boram Radio Network in Bosnia


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