Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Bosnia: War Crimes Trials Lottery
Hundreds of war crimes suspects in Bosnia are likely to evade prosecution because the judicial authorities lack resources and are frequently reluctant to mount trials, analysts say.
The Bosnian state prosecutor’s office has told IWPR that it has amassed evidence implicating just over 10,000 people in war crimes. The evidence is based on documents filed by Federation and Republika Srpska, RS, prosecutors and police.
Over the years, much of this evidence has been submitted to the Hague for consideration, but as of October last year the UN court had only given the go ahead for indictments against 661 individuals, to be tried by either the new War Crimes Chamber, WCC, of the Bosnian state court or district courts in RS and cantonal ones in the Federation.
The WCC, which will be partly staffed by international prosecutors and judges, will take on politically sensitive cases, leaving the lower courts to process the majority of the trials.
Some Bosnian politicians maintain the Hague tribunal should have given the green light for far more indictments, and failed to do so because it was insufficiently resourced to deal with the mountain of evidence provided.
However, even if the UN court had approved more cases, it’s unlikely that the Bosnian judiciary would be able to cope with them, with the exception of the WCC, few have either the resources or the willingness to mount war crimes prosecutions.
Local cantonal and district courts are inadequately funded and have poorly trained staff. Moreover, many judges and prosecutors are either corrupt or vulnerable to political pressure and ethnic bias.
Of the 10,000 people the Bosnian state prosecutor says are implicated in war crimes, 6,909 are currently being considered for prosecution by local Bosnian judicial authorities who since last October no longer have to ask the Hague tribunal for permission to issue indictments.
Acquiring these new powers is one thing, but actually following through with trials is quite another.
Since the end of the war, there have been just a few dozen local war crimes trials and only a handful of convictions. With little indication that this record will improve markedly, hundreds of people suspected of serious war crimes may literally get away with mass murder, say analysts.
To illustrate the extent of the problem, IWPR is publishing a series of investigations beginning next week on leading suspects who continue to evade prosecution, despite the testimony of many witnesses and other court-admissible evidence.
The investigations show that these men come from different political, social and ethnic backgrounds but their continuing freedom is due to a common factor - their close links to police and judicial figures in their home towns.
The situation is worst in RS, where the judiciary has failed to convict a single war crimes suspect to date. The first ever war crimes case there ended on February 11 with the acquittal of 11 Bosnian Serb police officers who were indicted for the illegal detention and murder of Catholic priest Tomislav Matanovic and his parents in 1995.
Their acquittal met with widespread condemnation amongst human rights groups and survivor associations.
Branko Todorovic, who heads the local branch of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, told IWPR there were indications that “improper” investigations prejudiced the outcome of the trial.
“The reluctance to prosecute former police, military and political figures for war crimes is everywhere in Bosnia,” said the Serbia and Montenegro project director for the International Crisis Group, ICG, James Lyon.
“But it is most noticeable in the RS because they have convicted nobody while in the Federation you’ve had at least some war crimes convictions and the police are not actively protecting war criminals in the same manner there.”
International officials say that the number of local prosecutions will increase when the WCC begins hearing cases later this month. But local judicial figures and outside observers say that the court - comprising three trial chambers and one appeals chamber initially - will only be able to hear a small proportion of the total number of cases.
“Although we will be reviewing all the cases, the war crimes chamber will only deal with [politically] sensitive ones,” said state prosecutor spokesperson Edita Pejovic.
“The district courts in the RS and the cantonal courts in the Federation will be responsible for the other cases.”
Emir Sulajagic, a Sarajevo-based investigative journalist who reports on war crimes cases, believes that the cantonal and district courts as they currently stand are not up to the job.
“One only has to look at their record over the past nine years to get an indication of their effectiveness,” he said.
“Because of a reluctance on the part of the local authorities, hundreds have gone unpunished. They live freely and the vast majority are likely to continue to do so.”
International officials say that this failure may be rectified in the coming years with the implementation of reforms such as a state-level police force and a more multi-ethnic judiciary dealing with war crimes cases.
“You will have cases of suspects being heard by judges of differing ethnicity which should make a difference,” said Pejovic.
“That together with the new state police service which will promote more professional officers may lead to a great number of prosecutions.”
She added the quality of investigations will improve once plans for mixed groups of local and international prosecutors to coordinate with district and cantonal court prosecutors are implemented.
However, despite the new structures being put in place, most analysts believe that hundreds of war crimes suspects will continue to evade justice.
“I can’t imagine that the courts in Bosnia or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia will be able to try the majority of those who committed war crimes,” Judith Armatta who covered war crimes trials in The Hague on behalf of the International Coalition for Justice, ICJ, told IWPR.
“The sheer numbers and inadequate resources mean that many will walk free and [remain] unaccountable.”
The ICG’s Lyon told IWPR, “Our investigations into war crimes in 1998 highlighted the sheer numbers involved. Nearly all the [suspects] we investigated remain free and will continue to do so because the local authorities lack the political will and the resources [to bring them to trial].”
Muhammed Dzemidzic, executive director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights on Bosnia, said, “ Once the WCC begins I think it will make good progress but…..its absolutely not possible to arrest and prosecute all those [implicated in cases given the go-ahead by the Hague] for war crimes.”
Hugh Griffiths is an IWPR investigations coordinator.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight