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REGIONAL REPORT: Local Justice, Bosnian-style

The Hague is keen to see local Bosnian courts take on more war crimes trials, but they will need help to do so
By Amra Kebo

Goran Vasic, aged 28, sat nervously in the dock of a small, cold courtroom at the Sarajevo Cantonal Court earlier this week. Guarded by a solitary policeman, the alleged Serb war criminal remained silent as witness testimony was presented.


Looking at his face, one could not help wondering how Vasic, while still a teenager, could have committed such crimes as tying Bosniaks to a car 'like horses', making them pull cars loaded with coal, beating them and goading dogs to bite them.


Vasic has been found guilty of the crimes, committed in 1992 and 1993, on two previous occasions. But both convictions were overturned by the Federation's Supreme Court, following successful appeals.


Vasic is now facing a third trial on the same charges, with one additional indictment - the alleged murder of Hakija Turajlic, former vice president of the Bosnian government, shot in an UNPROFOR vehicle at a Serb checkpoint in Sarajevo.


Vasic is being tried by a Croat judge and a jury of two Serbs and two Bosniaks. After each testimony, the judge dictates notes to a noisy stenographer.


Foreign observers have criticised the judiciary for taking so long to prosecute the case. But local legal experts say the three-year-long trial together with the two successful appeals underlines the court's credibility.


Judge Davorin Jukic told IWPR that the complicated nature of the case warranted the amount of time being spent on it - and that all local trials were monitored by the Office of the High Representative, which forwards its reports to the international war crimes tribunal and the Independent Judicial Commission.


But locals admit the judicial process is undermined by the difficulty in finding eyewitnesses.


"They are scared to give evidence - they are frightened for their lives," said cantonal court judge Izet Bazdarevic. This problem is thought to explain the large number of recent acquittals in war crimes trials held in Bosnia.


The many acquittals and the length of trials have both raised question marks over the competence of the domestic courts - although no war crimes trial can be carried out in Bosnia without the consent of The Hague tribunal.


Although Jukic believes the local judiciary is credible, he would prefer war criminals to be tried by specialist courts, such as the Hague tribunal, given the ease with which the latter is able to mount investigations and gather evidence.


Vasic's Serb lawyer, Veljko Civsa, says he would also prefer to have his client tried at The Hague but for different reasons. He says prosecuting the case in the Federation works against Vasic's interests.


Local opinion on the merits of The Hague is split along ethnic lines.


Croats and Serbs see it as a symbol of injustice and prefer local trials. Bosniaks, on the other hand, feel it is "the rightful place" for war criminals - and have a good deal of respect for its expert investigators and witness protection scheme.


But regardless of divided opinion, The Hague will not be able handle the trials of all those accused of war crimes - and some cases will have to be handed over to local courts.


The Cantonal Court in Sarajevo has held 14 such trials in the last few years. These have resulted in eight convictions, with defendants' sentenced to a total of 107 years imprisonment.


The Cantonal Prosecutor's Office has cooperated very closely with the international tribunal, sending it around 500 cases, 300 of which are currently being investigated.


Graham Blewitt, the tribunal's deputy chief prosecutor, says he is keen to see local courts take on cases.


The tribunal "will do everything in its power to help and support the domestic prosecutor's office in processing war crimes," he told IWPR during his last visit to Sarajevo in March. "Only in this way will all war criminals be brought before the law. The tribunal cannot do everything on its own."


Another senior Western official suggests it is much easier to conduct local trials now than immediately after the war because there is much less political tension.


In an effort to increase the local judiciary's expertise, the International Law Coalition, the American Association of Lawyers and the Legal Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe recently organised a four-day conference on war crimes trials, in Sarajevo and Banja Luka. Both venues attracted large numbers of lawyers and judges.


Mary Greer, the coordinator of the International Legal Coalition and one of the conference organisers, believes the time has come to help domestic lawyers deal with war crimes, if only because the local population shows great interest in the issue.


Bosnia is now considering founding "a Little Hague" at home. Under the scheme, tribunal prosecutors will oversee the work of local prosecutors and research teams. The Serbs have objected to the idea - at present, no war crimes trials are being conducted in Republika Srpska - but it could conceivably be set up in Brcko as this is an independent territory. The latter's judiciary has so far declined to comment on the matter.


The Bosnian courts must prove themselves qualified to carry through the complex and demanding proceedings involved in war crimes trial, before local people can regard them as competent enough to prosecute such cases. The Hague tribunal may be writing the history of the Balkans. But local courts could become co-authors.


Amra Kebo is an IWPR assistant editor in Bosnia, and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network.


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