Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Prosecutors Defend Use of Sealed Indictments
The use of a sealed indictment to arrest Dragan Obrenovic has provoked renewed Bosnian Serb criticism of the secretive methods employed by prosecutors to secure arrests of suspects.
Republika Srpska, RS, president Mirko Sarovic called the Obrenovic arrest "shameful" He said such unexpected arrests by Stabilisation Force, S-For, personnel did not contribute to peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The tribunal prosecution holds the names and numbers of those listed in sealed indictments a closely guarded secret. Nevertheless, it is clear that list lengthens every year. One only learns the identities when the suspects are apprehended.
But tribunal prosecutors were unapologetic. "Non-publication of indictments is the only effective way we have found to proceed in order to get people to The Hague to face trial," said Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, official James Stewart.
"We do not want to tip people off that they are sought and have them try and find refuge somewhere else."
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the tribunal depends on S-For cooperation to apprehend indictees. In Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, they have to rely on the readiness of the respective governments to hand over suspects. Former Yugoslavia, as a whole, has so far only surrendered six publicly indicted people - Croatia three, Bosnia-Herzegovina two and Yugoslavia one.
Prosecutors say the situation is changing in Croatia and especially Yugoslavia, where fugitives from RS had found refuge in the past. In March, Serbia extradited Milomir Stakic, the former mayor of Prijedor, who had been named in a sealed indictment for crimes in the town.
Stewart said criticism of the sealed indictment method may stem from a misunderstanding of the legal process.
"At the tribunal we have a system of rules that borrows from many different legal systems, a kind of blend of major legal systems of the world, " he said. " In certain systems it is perfectly normal for an indictment or a document to remain secret until the accused is apprehended."
That a suspect is not alerted to the fact he or she is wanted is not unfair, Stewart added, explaining that "once the arrest is made all the rights that the (tribunal) statute and rules provide come into play." They get a copy of the indictment in their own language, enter a plea and get all the evidentiary material the prosecution uses to support the indictment.
The system was first used by former chief prosecutor Richard Goldstone and became a matter of policy under his successor Louise Arbour. That the current chief prosecutor continues to use the system is evidence of its "reasonable effectiveness", Stewart said.
To date, 13 people have been arrested and transferred to The Hague on the basis of "sealed indictments". Nine were arrested by S-For in Bosnia-Herzegovina - Anto Furundzija, Radislav Krstic, Stevan Todorovic, Stanislav Galic, Radoslav Brdjanin, Momcilo Krajisnik, Dragan Nikolic, Mitar Vasiljevic and Dragan Obrenovic.
The late Slavko Dokmanovic was arrested in 1997 during a joint operation by tribunal investigators and members of the UN administration in Eastern Slavonia, Croatia. Others were extradited to The Hague by governments made aware of the existence of sealed indictments - Yugoslavia handed over Stakic, Austria Momir Talic.
Former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic, surrendered voluntarily when she learned she'd been named in a sealed indictment. Plavsic apparently did so rather than run the risk of a demeaning and possibly life-threatening arrest attempt.
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