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Mostar Divided Over Trials

Muslims and Croats in Mostar are divided over unprecedented local war crimes trials
By Mirsad Behram

Unprecedented war crimes trials in the divided city of Mostar are providing an important test of both the Bosnian judicial system and ethnic tolerance.

The Muslim and Croat communities of Mostar, which witnessed some of the worst inter-ethnic fighting during the Bosnian war, have mixed feelings about the trials, the first to take place outside The Hague tribunal courtrooms.

Many hoped they will signal the start of more such prosecutions in Bosnia, but there are also concerns that one ethnic group may be portrayed as more guilty of war crimes than others.

Thousands of civilians and soldiers died during fighting in Mostar in 1993. The Muslim and Croat communities, who live on either side of the Neretva river, are still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of hate and mistrust.

The first of the trials began last November, with the prosecution by a cantonal court of five Bosnian Croats. Less than two months later, the same court started to try six Muslims.

In both cases, The Hague allowed the local court to take charge. The tribunal, increasingly overwhelmed with cases, is seeking to farm trials of low level indictees to courts in the former Yugoslavia.

The defendants in the first of the trials, Zeljko Dzidic, Erhard Poznic, Zoran Soldo, Mato Anicic and Ivan Skutor, all former members of the Bosnian Croat militia, HVO, are charged with murdering four civilians and 20 soldiers from the Muslim-dominated Bosnian army.

The list of victims allegedly includes 12 soldiers captured in early May 1993. The captives mysteriously vanished, after being paraded on Croatian state television.

So far, hardline Bosnian Croat politicians have sought to obstruct the judicial process. Two of the indictees, Anicic and Skutor, are still at large and it's been suggested that they are being protected by the authorities.

According to western diplomats, the two were recently seen sipping coffee with Bosnian Croat policemen. The UN Mission in Bosnia has on several occasions criticised Croat law enforcement agencies of doing nothing to arrest the defendants, but to no avail.

"The police behaviour in this case is inappropriate," said Stefo Lehmann, a UN spokesman. He said the main problem was "political interference" in the work of local police.

In another example of many of the problems it has encountered, the court had to release Soldo on January 5, for lack of evidence. During the hearings, one of the key prosecution witnesses ended up in jail, after refusing to testify. He claimed he'd been warned not to give evidence.

At the end of January, the court began trying the second case - six former Bosnian army soldiers, Zikrija Ljevo, Vernes Zahirovic, Becir

Omanovic, Meho Kaminic, Habib Copelj and Husnija Orucevic, accused of torturing imprisoned Croat soldiers, two of whom are said to have died from their injuries.

Recently, the court freed Kaminic on the grounds of mistaken identity.

The two trials are ongoing and it is uncertain when they will finish. In both cases, the prosecution have yet to complete their cases.

The long and painstaking judicial process is being closely observed by Mostar's Muslim and Croat communities, who seem equally divided over the trials.

In the Croat-dominated western half of the city, one resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, commented, "It's about time that someone has been put on trial for committing crimes against Croats because up until now Croats are the only people to have been tried here and The Hague."

Across the Neretva, in the predominantly Muslim eastern half of the city, beseiged and regularly pounded by enemy artillery during the war, the prevailing view, unsurprisingly, is that not enough has been done to bring Croat war criminals to justice.

"It's good that these war crimes trials have begun," remarked one woman, but she expressed concern that major suspects may escape justice.

"Right now only minor criminals are being put on trial," she complained. "Will anyone ever be held accountable for shelling us, killing, persecuting and starving us for months. This is what I would really want to know."

The trials may answer some of these questions. But the biggest question of all is whether the two divided communities in Mostar will accept the answers.

Mirsad Behram is a regular IWPR contributor