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REGIONAL REPORT: New Twist in Damjanovic Case

Sarajevo lawyers are to challenge local court's decision to overturn landmark war crimes conviction.
By Edina Becirevic

Prosecutors are to appeal against a Sarajevo court's quashing of war crimes charges against Bosnian Serb Sretko Damjanovic.


Damjanovic walked free several months ago, after his 1993 conviction for genocide, the first such case in the Balkans, was overturned.


The Sarajevo cantonal court had sentenced him to death for the killing of seven civilians and for one count of attempted murder during the Bosnian conflict.


But on July 15 this year, the same court quashed the conviction, finding him guilty of the lesser crime of killing one person and wounding another.


He was sentenced to nine years imprisonment, but since he had been in jail since 1992 he was immediately released and is now believed to be living in Republika Srpska.


The city's district prosecutor is to appeal against the decision later this month - and Damjanovic may choose to challenge the remaining counts against him, claiming that the charges were politically motivated.


The Damjanovic case provides a unique insight into the Bosnian judiciary at a time when the tribunal is considering the referral of more war crimes cases to Balkan courts.


In the Sarajevo canton alone, 17 war crimes trials have been completed, 12 resulting in convictions and five in acquittals.


Damjanovic and fellow Bosnian Serb soldier Borislav Herak were arrested in November 1992 in Sarajevo, after taking a wrong turn and entering territory controlled by the Bosnian army.


Initially, both men admitted killing numerous non-Serb civilians in Sarajevo's suburbs. After contacting a lawyer, Damjanovic changed his story, claiming his earlier admission had been made under duress.


Herak did not retract, however, repeating claims of killings and rapes, along with lurid descriptions - published widely in the media - of how Serb soldiers practised the slaughtering of people on pigs.


In March 1993, Damjanovic and Herak were sentenced to death for genocide.


The judgement was mainly based on Damjanovic's initial statement along with Herak's evidence, which included allegations of his having participated in the killing of two brothers, Asim and Kasim Blekic.


The conviction came three years before an international agreement, The Rules of the Road, signed in Rome, stipulated that members of different ethnic groups in Bosnia could not put each other on trial without The Hague tribunal's permission.


As Damjanovic and Herak awaited execution, capital punishment was abolished and their sentences were commuted to 20 years in prison.


Then, dramatically, on February 12, 1997 the Reuters news agency found the Blekic brothers alive in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, prompting Damjanovic's lawyer Branko Maric to launch an immediate appeal.


A re-trial finally got underway last year with Sarajevo cantonal prosecutor Mustafa Bisic arguing that the victims' identity had probably been mistaken and Damjanovic had still killed seven people - the number the two Bosnian Serbs had initially admitted to - with the intent of committing genocide.


The prosecution also sought to present evidence of five bodies discovered in 1996 in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, which it was claimed matched Herak's and Damjanovic's initial statements about the timing and method of the killings.


The Sarajevo cantonal court, however, refused to take into account the results of the exhumations - the Bosnian judiciary does not accept circumstantial evidence - and rejected Herak's statement as evidence against Damjanovic.


Back in 1999, Damjanovic sued the Bosnian Federation for the trauma he had suffered while waiting on the death row, receiving 16,750 konvertible marks (euro 8,400) in compensation.


The Damjanovic case is not the only local trial to have had problems. In others, indictments have been poorly put together and badly presented, while some witness testimony has been incomplete.


European Union legal expert Ahmed Zilic, when asked to assess the Sarajevo cantonal court's performance and, more generally, the ability of the country's judiciary to process war crimes, was positive but cautious.


"With all the shortcomings in the war crimes trials in Sarajevo, I think that the judges were very professional in performing their duties," he said.


Edina Becirevic is assistant professor at the Sarajevo University for Security Studies.


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