Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Regional Report: Bosnian Judiciary Set for Overhaul

Sweeping changes will have to be made to the Bosnian judiciary before it can start trying more war crimes cases.
By Amra Kebo

The international body overseeing Bosnia's peace process is to meet in January to review responses to a fund raising appeal for the overhaul of the country’s judicial system.


The Peace Implementation Council, PIC, made its appeal late last month following a joint declaration by Bosnian High Representative Paddy Ashdown and The Hague’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte that unless the judiciary received urgent assistance, it would not be able to prosecute war crimes suspects – which, they said, was crucial to the country’s development.


"Bosnia-Hercegovina cannot become a functioning state without creating such capacities, which are of key importance in closing the war chapter," read a joint press statement. Both said this would only be possible with financial and professional support from the international community.


The PIC has now requested member countries to earmark funding and organisations able to assist with the reform of the judiciary as soon as possible. It is to meet again in January to review responses to the appeal and decide how to allocate pledges of assistance.


Supported by the governments of Great Britain and Sweden, a team of legal experts prepared a study in May about the future of war crime trials in the country.


It suggested the establishment of a special state court to try such cases:


comprising five judges, three of whom would be local - one from each ethnic group - and two international ones.


There was also a proposal to replace the current system of investigating judges with a state prosecutor and the introduction of a witness protection programme.


The state court proposal is the centrepiece of draft legislation currently before the Bosnian parliament.


According to the proposed legislation, the court would process the majority of war crime suspects, with cantonal and regional judiciaries handling the remainder.


It is estimated that at least 30 million US dollars will be needed in the first five years of the state court’s operation.


The proposals may well have a bumpy ride through parliament, if the squabbling over its location is anything to go by.


A month ago, Bosnia’s state government - acting upon a recommendation of Office of High Representative - decided to base the court to Ramiz Salcin barracks in Sarajevo. But this triggered a strong reaction from numerous Bosnian Serb politicians, who claimed that many Serb prisoners were tortured there during the war.


A Republika Srpska, RS, parliament deputy Nikola Spiric went as far as to call the barracks a "Holocaust museum" and warned that none of the entity’s judges would work there.


Ashdown ended the quarrel by insisting that the court be housed in the barracks. According to the state minister for civil affairs and communications Svetozar Mihajlovic, the European Commission has already allocated eight million konvertible marks - four million euro – to transform the compound.


For the time being, the tribunal will continue to handle the bulk of war crimes cases, with some lower-level offenders being tried in Bosnia only once they’re cleared by the tribunal.


So far, the Federation has forwarded some 1,200 cases to The Hague for evaluation - 70 of which are being investigated. In RS, 60 cases have been submitted, but only one is being seriously considered.


According to federal prosecutor Marinko Jurcevic, 65 war crimes trials, involving 244 defendants, have been held so far within the Federation, with 34 guilty verdicts and nine acquittals.


According to Dejan Miletic, the head of RS bureau for relations with The Hague tribunal, there are three ongoing war crime cases in the republic - all at the investigation stage.


The process of ceding larger number of cases to national courts should start during the first quarter of 2003.


But bearing in mind the current condition of Bosnia’s judicial system, western officials expect the first trials at the end of 2003 or early 2004.


Amra Kebo is a commentator for the Sarajevo daily Oslobedjenje and a regular IWPR contributor.