International Justice/ICTY: April ‘09

IWPR reports on international and local war crimes trials generate debate in region.

International Justice/ICTY: April ‘09

IWPR reports on international and local war crimes trials generate debate in region.

Thursday, 28 May, 2009
An IWPR report in April examining the implications of the Krajisnik appeals judgement on the forthcoming Karadzic trial has provoked discussion among regional commentators.


Hague prosecutors accuse Radovan Karadzic, the former president of Republika Srpska, RS, of leading the same Bosnian Serb criminal plan – or joint criminal enterprise – that his political ally, the former Bosnian Serb parliamentary speaker Momcilo Krajisnik was convicted of taking part in.


Karadzic is charged with many of the crimes committed against non-Serbs in Bosnia, including genocide, for which Krajsinik has been acquitted.


Following a March 17 decision by appeals judges to reverse Krajisnik’s convictions on key charges, including murder, extermination and persecution (except deportation and forcible transfer) some observers told IWPR that prosecutors may have trouble making similar accusations against Karadzic stick.


However, others in the IWPR story What Karadzic Prosecutors Learnt From Krajisnik Trial, told reporter Simon Jennings that it was the judges’ incomplete assessment of the prosecution case against Krajisnik, rather than a lack of evidence presented, that led to his acquittal on these counts.


They said that the more senior political position held by Karadzic – who is in custody, awaiting trial on 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity – could mean that a clearer link exists between orders given and crimes committed, and may make his case easier to prove.


Davor Marko, an analyst from the Sarajevo-based Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies, ACIPS, said that the arguments on all sides presented in Jennings’ piece were perfectly valid.


However, he added that in his opinion, the two cases were “completely different”.


“Karadzic is a much bigger fish than Krajisnik and certainly had more power than him. He was also much more exposed in the media during the war,” said Marko.


“Also, his statement before the Bosnian parliament on the eve of the Bosnian 1992-95 war, in which he announced the physical disappearance of Bosnian Muslims if they voted for Bosnia’s independence cannot be forgotten, just as all those horrible crimes that ensued shortly after that statement.


“I think the general assumption was that Krajisnik was subordinate to Karadzic and that’s why his responsibility for the crimes committed in Bosnia was perceived as limited, which [was] reflected in the judgement.”


But Milan Antonijevic, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, said that the fact that the prosecutors failed to prove Krajisnik’s responsibility for some crimes listed in the indictment against him means they will have a hard time proving Karadzic’s responsibility for the same crimes.


“Although there were some serious shortcomings in the judgement delivered by the trial chamber in the case against Krajisnik, it is my impression that the appeals chamber made even more mistakes because their judgement was delivered in haste,” said Antonijevic.


“After reading Simon Jenning’s article, I concluded not only that the prosecutors did not do a very good job, but that trial and appeals chambers also failed to support their verdicts [with adequate arguments].


“I think that the judgement in the Krajisnik case is a strong indicator that prosecutors will have to prepare their case against Karadzic much more thoroughly if they want to prove all charges against him.


“And we should not forget that Karadzic will very likely try to use Krajisnik’s appeals judgement in his favour.”


Sonja Biserko, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, said she was very disappointed with the way the prosecution handled the Krajisnik case.


“The prosecutors didn’t even understand what this case was supposed to be about. The indictment focused on the very limited period of the Bosnian war [during 1991 and 1992), while it should have included the events from 1991 to1995,” she said.


“As a consequence, such an indictment diminished their chances of proving all charges and made it almost impossible to prove a genocide charge.”


Others, meanwhile, suggested there was little point trying to anticipate the outcome of Karadzic’s trial, based on the Krajisnik appeals judgement.


Dusan Ignjatovic, head of the Serbian government’s Office for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, said that from a legal point of view, Karadzic’s trial will be like any other case and that a verdict will depend solely on the evidence presented during proceedings.


“The challenge that awaits the prosecution in the case against Karadzic will be the same as in every other process – proving beyond reasonable doubt all counts of the indictment, and if not all, then as many counts as possible,” he said.



Another article that sparked discussion among observers in the region last month was Four Serb Policemen Jailed for Suva Reka Massacre by IWPR’s reporter in Belgrade, Aleksandar Roknic.


The article was related to a judgement delivered by the War Crimes Chamber of Belgrade’s District Court, which at the end of April convicted four Serbian former police officers of the murders of 50 Kosovo Albanian civilians in what was widely considered to be one of the worst atrocities committed during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.


However, three of their co-accused were released – including the main suspect and highest ranking of the seven accused Radoslav Mitrovic – after being acquitted on all charges.


Mitrovic was found not guilty because no-one from his unit was in Suva Reka on the day of the massacre, while Jovanovic and Petkovic were acquitted due to a lack of evidence, said judges.


Their acquittal provoked angry reactions from victims’ relatives and observers in the region.


Davor Marko says he couldn’t understand how a prime suspect in one of the worst atrocities of Kosovo’s war could be acquitted.


“To say that the verdict is scandalous doesn’t even start to describe it, especially if we keep in mind that most victims were members of the same family, and that they were murdered in a particularly brutal way,” he said.


The judges found in their ruling that on March 26, 1999, the defendants rounded up members of the Berisha family in their village of Suva Reka, killing several elderly men with machine-gun fire before forcing the rest of the family into a pizza restaurant and throwing hand-grenades at them.


According to prosecutors in the case, those who showed any signs of life were shot in the head, and the bodies were then transported to a mass grave in Prizren, where they were initially buried.
Antonijevic agreed with Marko.


“A verdict in which the primary suspect was released despite a great amount of compelling evidence was very unjust,” he said.


“I consider it scandalous and justice certainly has not been achieved. The dissatisfaction of victims’ families, as conveyed in IWPR’s article, is completely justified, especially if we take into account the length of the process [three years] and the brutality of crimes committed.


“It is still early to say how this trial will affect the general impression of the capabilities and capacities of local courts. I would not talk about that before the final verdict has been reached [after the Supreme Court makes a decision in the appeal process].”


However, Ignjatovic disagreed with claims made by many observers in the region that the verdict was unfair, pointing out that two of the defendants received maximum prison sentences for the crimes they were convicted of.


“I do not think that the victims or their representatives find the verdict scandalous. The crimes against Albanian civilians in Suva Reka were extremely serious and it was expected that the victims’ families and the public would want those responsible to be punished properly,” he said.


“Still, the responsibility of each person must be determined beyond reasonable doubt and that is the judiciary’s task. After the evidence had been presented, the first-instance court reached the verdict, and this verdict will be re-evaluated by the Supreme Court in the appeal process.”


He said it was easy to understand the reactions of the victims’ families because they had suffered terrible losses.


“However, it is important to point out that this trial has shown that the crimes in Suva Reka did take place and that nobody denies that any more. That is an important step in achieving justice for victims,” he said.


Ignjatovic said he believed the country’s courts were able to handle difficult war crimes trials.


“Based on the work of the War Crimes Prosecution Office and the War Crimes Chamber of the Belgrade’s District court so far, we can say that Serbian judiciary is capable of dealing with these difficult and complex cases,” he said.


“The [Hague] tribunal’s officials and representatives of other relevant international organisations have claimed the same, which is another indicator that our judiciary has shown a high level of professionalism in its work.”

Support our journalists