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REGIONAL REPORT: Bosnian Serbs Aid Tribunal Fugitives

Concerned over several secret indictments leaked from the Bosnian Serb government, the tribunal plans to establish its own unit to track suspects.
By Sead Numanovic

Bosnian Serb officials have actively assisted Hague fugitives by leaking secret indictments from the war crimes tribunal.


The charge, made by tribunal Deputy Chief Prosecutor Graham Blewitt, will focus more attention on the Banja Luka authorities' failure to cooperate with the court, in advance of a critical debate in early September at which the entity's parliament is due to approve new legislation on relations with The Hague.


In an interview in mid-August for IWPR, Blewitt revealed that both the previous Republika Srpska, RS, government, led by Milorad Dodik, and the current administration, under Mladen Ivanic, have on several occasions received secret indictments against Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects which were then forwarded to the indictees themselves.


"Those people had been informed," Blewitt said. "I do not believe the government did it intentionally. The responsibility is on an individual in the government who wanted to slow down justice."


The aim of sealed indictments is to inform international authorities who are in a position to make arrests, without alerting the suspects in advance. The first secret indictments were sent to Dodik's government a year and a half ago, according to Blewitt, and more were handed to Ivanic's administration at the beginning of the year.


In both cases, indictees were alerted, he said, and no arrests were made.


Repeated attempts by telephone and fax to obtain comment from Dodik and Ivanic were unsuccessful. Sensitivities about giving an interview to a Sarajevo journalist may remain. But the more concrete explanation in this case is the explosive nature of the tribunal issue in Republika Srpska.


To acknowledge acceptance of sealed indictments from The Hague would expose either leader to severe Bosnian Serb criticism and damaging electoral consequences. To deny having received the indictments would only open them to harsh attack from the tribunal, and possibly more censure from Western powers.


But Radmilo Sipovac, deputy editor of the Banja Luka daily Nezavisne Novine, a lone forum in the RS for debate on the tribunal, believes that the Bosnian Serb authorities have received sealed indictments.


While uncertain if Dodik ever received any, Sipovac is confident that Ivanic did. Sipovac says Ivanic even unsealed one indictment at a session of the RS government on August 15, the very day Bosnian Serb Lieutenant-Colonel Dragan Jokic surrendered to the tribunal. "If someone hadn't notified [Jokic]," Sipovac asks, "how would he have known he had to surrender?"


Ivanic, previously a popular economics professor, has warned Bosnian Serbs that failure to cooperate with the tribunal could cause RS to go bankrupt, as the international community may respond by slashing financial aid. The legislation up for debate this month is intended to enable the moderate administration to cooperate with the court, and could pave the way for fresh arrests, even including the key fugitive, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.


But opposition to the court in the Serb entity, among politicians and people at large, remains firm. Many legal experts see the process of passing legislation on cooperation as a delaying manoeuvre, insisting that RS is already obliged by the UN charter, as well as the Dayton Peace Accords, to cooperate with the court, and does not need any additional law. Since a provisional debate on the draft law earlier this summer, the court has handed down its historic verdict of genocide against top former general Radislav Krstic, and tempers over the issue are certain to be raised when parliament reconvenes.


Frustrated by the slowing pace of arrests, the tribunal is seeking to establish its own tracking unit to monitor the whereabouts of Hague fugitives so that the court itself can provide the information to relevant authorities.


The initiative, according to Blewitt, is a response both to the increasing success of the tribunal, as well as continuing problems.


To date the tribunal has issued 75 public indictments and is believed to have approved sealed or secret indictments against further 11 individuals. Forty-eight of those arrested or voluntarily surrendered, are currently in the detention unit. One indictee is soon to be provisionally released. (More that 48 indictees have passed through the detention unit, 4 have been sent to serve sentences, 5 have been acquitted, and 3 died). Further 26 investigations involving some 120 potential indictees are ongoing, according to Blewitt, and should be completed by 2004.


The number of arrests made in recent years, a vast improvement over the initial period of the court, has stocked the prison in The Hague and ensured that the courtrooms and increasing number of full and part-time judges are kept busy.


But with fewer indictees at large, Blewitt told IWPR, the remaining suspects are proving ever more difficult for SFOR, the international forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to apprehend. The troops are tasked with making arrests where possible, but under the terms of the Dayton Peace Agreement are not specifically charged with tracing and apprehending alleged war criminals.


"SFOR has a difficult task and it is more difficult now to arrest some indicted persons. That means cooperation between the RS government and The Hague becomes more important," the deputy prosecutor said.


In this context, leaks from the Banja Luka authorities have only helped indictees hide still more effectively. "They are not cooperating," said Blewitt, "and there is no signal that they are really ready to cooperate."


Notably, the prosecutor's office has remained cool on the proposed new legislation. It argues that as a UN member state, Bosnia and Herzegovina is already obligated to cooperate with the tribunal, a UN organ. As an entity within that state, and one also subject to the Dayton Peace Agreement which specifically stipulates cooperation with The Hague, RS has no need for any implementing legislation. The only meaningful sign of good will from the prosecutor's perspective will be concrete steps by Banja Luka, in particular arrests and transfers.


The prosecutor's office continues to urge Banja Luka to arrest Karadzic and his co-indictee, the former war-time leader, General Ratko Mladic, and Blewitt did not relish the idea of punitive sanctions. "All of Bosnia and Herzegovina was heavily devastated during the war, and common people must be allowed to reconstruct their lives," he said.


Yet in arresting and transferring Slobodan Milosevic, the Belgrade authorities had set a standard which Banja Luka must match. RS needs "reforms to change people's consciousness, since common Serbs were fed with anti-Hague propaganda," Blewitt said. "It must be explained to them that Serbs also committed crimes, terrible crimes." And this process cannot begin without the arrest of the top war-time leaders.


The trial of Momcilo Krajisnik and Biljana Plavsic, if Karadzic and Mladic are not turned over, is expected to take place in January. That would create a problem, since when the missing two did finally appear in The Hague, the entire case would have to be re-presented against them. If Karadzic and Mladic are, however, transferred soon, all four cases could be joined, but this would cause further delay in the trials against Krajisnik and Plavsic, also not an optimal outcome.


Meantime, the tribunal hopes that establishing a special war crimes tracking unit, sometime next year, could help address the problem of arrests. The group is projected to include around a dozen people. Information would be passed to relevant, presumably international, authorities, to assist them in making arrests. The files could be shared with local authorities, Blewitt said, but only when the court was absolutely sure there would be no leaks.


Sead Numanovic is a reporter and editor for the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz and weekly Express.


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