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Dodik in Hot Water Over Legal Aid Plan

Republika Srpska leader under fire for proposing foundation offering Bosnian Serb indictees help with their defence cases.
By Maja Bjelajac

The president of Republika Srpska, RS, Milorad Dodik, has drawn criticism for proposing the creation of a private foundation to provide legal assistance to Bosnian Serbs indicted for war crimes by the Bosnian state prosecutor.

Explaining his decision to the local media at a press conference in Banja Luka on February 21, Dodik said it was prompted by claims made by the War Veterans Organisation of RS that indicted Serbs “have no adequate legal protection” at the Bosnian state court, and that this institution “hands down verdicts that are primarily politically motivated”.

Dodik accused the prosecutor’s office and the state court of bias and pointed out “the disparity between the number of indictments against Serbs and other ethnic groups in Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH)”.

According to data gathered by the RS Centre for Investigating War Crimes, the BiH court has so far convicted 49 Bosnian Serbs, 13 Bosnian Croats and seven Bosniaks for crimes committed during the 1992-95 war.

Out of 189 persons indicted for war crimes by the state prosecutor’s office, 132 have been Serbs, 26 Croats and 31 Bosniaks.

Only 17 cases were related to war crimes committed against Bosnian Serbs.

However, the state prosecutor’s office refuted Dodik’s claims that it was a politically-motivated institution which had intentionally indicted more Serbs than Bosniaks and Croats.

“We can not base our indictments on ethnicity and for every indicted Serb automatically indict one Bosniak and one Croat,” spokesman Boris Grubesic said. “It doesn’t work that way. We cannot create an artificial balance in prosecuting war crime cases.”

According to Grubesic, the prosecutor’s office did not separate cases based on ethnicity and the sole criteria for the indictments was the evidence provided for each case. If the prosecutor was satisfied with the quality of evidence and believed there were sufficient grounds for prosecution, only then could an indictment be issued.

The president of the BiH state court, Medzida Kreso, also disagreed with Dodik’s claims that Bosnian Serbs lacked adequate legal representation, saying that “all those indicted by the BiH court have equal rights, regardless of their nationality”.

Kreso explained that when the BiH court was established in 2002, a department for criminal defence was formed within the court’s registry and had since been integrated into the BiH ministry of justice.

“The role of this department is to ensure the highest standards of legal defence during war crime trials at the national courts – to ensure legal and administrative support to lawyers at the BiH court, and to make sure that the training programmess for lawyers are carried out regularly,” Kreso said.

In 2010, defence lawyers appointed by this court were paid the equivalent of 1.7 million US dollars for their work.

Some analysts in the RS see Dodik’s support for a private foundation for legal assistance to indicted Serbs as an attempt by the RS government to diminish the work of state institutions, including the state prosecutor and state court.

Tanja Topic, a political analyst and researcher from Banja Luka at the Friedrich Ebert foundation, said that Dodik had been campaigning for years to return state competencies to entity level, thus weakening the state and strengthening RS.

At the beginning of March, Dodik announced at a session of the RS national assembly that he planned to propose a referendum in which “the citizens of RS will have their say in whether they need the BiH court and the prosecutor’s office at all”.

If the answer was negative, Dodik said RS representatives should withdraw from these institutions.

“Another problem is the different perceptions of the war in BiH and the crimes that were committed,” Topic added. “Each side has its own version of events from the recent war.”

According to Dodik, his proposed private foundation would be financed by voluntary contributions. There were some suggestions in the RS ruling coalition that all those employed in the public sector should donate the equivalent of 70 US cents a month for that purpose.

However, that plan fell through after opposition accusations of hypocrisy, since in 2006 the RS government, led by Dodik who was at the time a prime minister, decided not to help the families of Bosnian Serbs indicted by the Hague tribunal.

The office of the BiH state prosecutor deemed the initiative for a private foundation to help Serb indictees to be counterproductive, because it could be interpreted as political interference in war crimes proceedings.

“War crimes were committed by individuals and if some political structures in either entity provide support for them that will definitely not help justice or reconciliation in BiH,” Grubesic said.

Bosniak victims’ associations share a similar viewpoint and condemned Dodik’s intention to support such a foundation.

“It is interesting that despite all the verdicts handed down by the Hague tribunal and so many bodies exhumed from mass graves, the RS president Milorad Dodik is still more concerned with helping Serbs indicted for war crimes than with accepting the fact that majority of crimes in the last war were committed by Bosnian Serb forces,” Kada Hotic, vice-president of the association Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves, said.

The executive director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in RS, Branko Todorovic, said that he found it strange that the Bosnian Serb government supported the foundation initiative when “so far indicted Serb individuals have not filed any significant complaints about their defence”.

“I believe these are just empty words and that by talking about this foundation the RS government only wants to please war veterans and gain their support,” Todorovic added.

Maja Bjelajac is an IWPR-trained reporter in Banja Luka.