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

Bosnia: Serb Judiciary in Tatters

After 10 years of steadily declining standards in the courts, Bosnian Serb leaders are waking up to the need to get politicians off the backs of judges.

The rule of law in the Serb half of Bosnia has been massively eroded by corrupt politicians imposing their will on judges to prevent political cronies suffering punishment in the courts.

The international community and independent local experts have compiled a long list of incidents that show the judiciary is in thrall to the country's political masters.

"The law does not yet rule in Bosnia-Herzegovina," according to one leading think-tank, the International Crisis Group, ICG, in last week's special report titled, Courting Disaster: The Misrule of Law in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

"What prevails instead are nationally defined politics, inconsistency in the application of law, corrupt and incompetent courts, a fragmented judicial space, half-baked or half-implemented reforms, and sheer negligence."

While the judiciary is weak all over Bosnia, many local and international experts say the situation is far worse in Republika Srpska, RS, than in the Federation.

One example was the kid-glove treatment handed out to 10 people who wrecked the Stara Kuglana restaurant in Prijedor, north-west Bosnia, on January 12, beating up the owner and his guests.

Judge Milorad Papovic freed the wreckers after only three days, ignoring serious charges brought by police, without explanation. Local sources said the violence was mafia-related and thus linked to politicians and the judiciary.

Last May, RS public prosecutors, again with no explanation, reduced ethnic violence charges against 16 people accused of beating a Bosnian Muslim to death and injuring many others in Banja Luka. The incident occurred in a groundbreaking ceremony for reconstructing the city's famous Ferhadija mosque, but the prosecutor brought only minor charges punishable by no more than three years in prison.

The decline of the judiciary in the region began 10 years ago and has continued since the Dayton peace agreement ended the Bosnian conflict in 1995. International and local analysts say the judiciary is simply now an instrument of politicians in power.

In a landmark case in July 1997, former RS president Biljana Plavsic dismissed parliament in an attempt to oust the corrupt government run by extremists from her own Serbian Democratic Party, SDS. As the strongest party in the RS assembly, the SDS was able to demand that the constitutional court decide on the legality of Plavsic's decision.

On the eve of the court session, Jovo Rosic, a constitutional court judge who rejected SDS pressure to vote against Plavsic, was attacked and badly beaten by a group of masked men who broke into his hotel room on Mt Jahorina, near Sarajevo. After this the court, presiding without Rosic, decided in favour of the SDS. Plavsic, supported by the international community and citing the attack on Rosic, rejected this ruling.

Also in 1997, former RS premier Gojko Klickovic escaped the country after he was released from prison on a bail pending trial for embezzling millions of German marks from the RS budget.

That summer Plavsic left the SDS, accusing its leaders of economic crimes. She delivered to the RS prosecutor's office evidence of illegal deals by several companies which were controlled by her former party's hard line leadership. None of these cases was ever examined or officially opened.

In the summer of 1998, the director of one of the companies was arrested for fraud and massive tax evasion. After one night in jail, he walked free, escorted by the SDS leader Momcilo Krajisnik, now in The Hague, accused for genocide. Prosecutors, judges and the police minister, Milovan Stankovic, did nothing.

Arguments abound over the root cause of judicial corruption. Vojislav Dimitrijevic, RS public prosecutor, blames the police and other investigative bodies for failing to provide courts with sufficient evidence. "Prosecutors do their job properly but cannot act without solid evidence," he said. "The only solution is to change the constitution so that the parliament is not authorised to appoint judges and public prosecutors."

The international community is showing clear signs of impatience with the legal chaos. The High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch, has complained that the Bosnian Serb judiciary poses a serious obstacle to establishing the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Investigations by a special Petritsch judicial commission have uncovered about 12,000 unresolved cases in the courts of Banja Luka, Prnjavor and Prijedor. Some citizens have been waiting to have cases heard for 10 years. Many are non-Serbs who fled in the war and are now mounting legal action to recover their homes.

On Petritsch's initiative, the RS parliament in 2000 set up the High Court Council and High Prosecution Council to investigate the work of judges and prosecutors. Both bodies have appealed for written complaints concerning the work of judiciary. Most citizens with grievances, however, are too afraid to testify openly.

In addition, there is no clear legal mechanism obliging the RS parliament to accept recommendations from the two councils. Only the assembly can dismiss judges and it is usually in no hurry to act. So far, only two judges have been sacked for negligence.

"This is a huge task requiring much time," said Rosic, now chairman of the High Court Council. Rosic recalled that the RS parliament once returned a recommendation for the dismissal of one particular judge as "unsubstantiated", after the council proved he was violating legal deadlines and falsifying his personal files.

Lack of competent personnel is another problem, as many excellent judges and prosecutors quit of their own accord, or under political pressure.

Some of the strongest criticism came recently from the RS premier Mladen Ivanic, who has stressed that the RS judiciary must change radically. He expressed doubt that reform could be achieved through the courts and the special councils and called for greater public involvement in selection of judges and prosecutors.

Gordana Katana is correspondent with the Sarajevo daily Avaz

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