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Regional Report: Bosnian Trial Exposes 'Judicial Flaws'

Case of convicted Bosnian Croat soldier appears to highlight failings of local courts.
By Amra Kebo

For those who think Bosnia's judiciary is ready to take the bulk of war crimes trials from The Hague tribunal, the following case should provide a lesson in the difficulties still faced.

Tibor Prajo was jailed last year for war crimes committed as part of a unit of the Bosnian Croat army, HVO, operating in central Bosnia in 1993, at the height of the war.

In February 1995, he was one of scores of combatants investigated by the Sarajevo cantonal prosecution in connection with the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) from the Croat-dominated towns of Kiseljak and Kresevo.

Prajo was named as a member of a unit, called Maturice, suspected of carrying out genocide against Bosniaks.

In March 2000, The Hague tribunal gave approval for his war crimes trial to go ahead in local Bosnian courts.

Finding out there was a warrant for his arrest, Prajo surrendered to Bosnian police in Kiseljak on November 24, 2000. They sent him to Sarajevo.

His indictment was then changed. A charge of genocide was dropped for lack of evidence. The remaining charges against him included attacking a village, destroying homes and killing two Bosniak inhabitants.

He was further blamed for helping separate men from women, then taking the former to a graveyard, and shooting eight dead. Later, said the indictment, homes were set on fire and another Bosniak was burned alive.

His defence appealed against the charges, and the Bosnian supreme court broke with customary practice and agreed his case could be moved to Travnik, a half-Croat town where he hoped to get a more sympathetic hearing than in the Bosniak-dominated capital.

Sarajevo's chief prosecutor, Mustafa Bisic, appealed against the move arguing it was illegal - but to no avail.

Next, the Travnik public prosecutor dropped three of the counts against the defendant, leaving four still standing.

The trial opened in Travnik in September 2001 and another count - for theft of property - also dropped.

It finished last May with Prajo being jailed for 18 months, on three of the counts.

Both defence and prosecution immediately launched appeals. The former failed, but the latter saw his sentence increased to two-and-a-half years.

This has left the defence angry: they insist that nobody has yet proved that Prajo was responsible for the crimes of the Maturice unit.

Backing their claim, the defence say none of the prosecution witnesses have been able to identify Prajo as taking part in atrocities. And now, many Bosnians are wondering whether he is really guilty of anything.

Having already spent a year in jail, Prajo remains defiant, launching a last-ditched appeal against his conviction.

Whatever the result of this final twist in the tale, many Bosnians will be left hoping they will soon have a more streamlined system to dispense justice.

Amra Kebo is a commentator for Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.

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