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Regional Report: Serbia to Prosecute Suspects

Belgrade legal experts raise concerns over plans for Serbian war crimes court.
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

Not long ago, the world would have brushed off the suggestion as a joke - yet another farcical effort to sweep under the rug any suggestion that Serbia committed war crimes


But when Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic announced at the end of April that Belgrade was establishing a special court to prosecute war crimes, European governments, human rights organisations and even the Hague tribunal applauded the effort.


Following the March assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, Belgrade realised that foot-dragging over cooperation with The Hague was no longer a possibility: it needed to crack down on war crimes suspects not only to secure further American aid but also to maintain stability.


Over the past few weeks, the authorities here have taken unprecedented steps on the cooperation front, paving the way for the extradition of all of the war crimes suspects being sought by the tribunal by the end of the year.


The Hague plans to complete all of is investigations into war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia in the next eighteen months and will not issue any further indictments after that time. The tribunal will then complete its work by 2008, and will focus its proceedings only on those “most responsible” for war crimes.


Batic said the Serbian war crimes court would focus on lower-level suspects, as well as those that come to light after the UN tribunal’s cut-off date for completion of investigations. The court will have its own prosecutor and detention unit, and a special police force, charged with the task of investigating and apprehending war crimes suspects, will be created.


During her visit to Belgrade this week, the Hague’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said she was delighted by the announcement and vowed to do whatever she could to aid Belgrade in its efforts.


"I am willing to hand certain cases over to the Belgrade judiciary, because, for the sake of reconciliation, it is important that national courts try war crimes suspects,” she said.


The Serbian premier Zoran Zivkovic said Del Ponte had given the Belgrade authorities eight boxes of documents related to killings at the Ovcara farm near Vukovar in 1991, and said that he hoped the tribunal would continue to aid the local war crimes court by providing evidence.


The OSCE and the American Bar Association’s Central and East European Law Initiative, ABA-CEELI, are aiding Belgrade in its efforts to create the court.


With their assistance, the ministry of justice is drafting a bill for the court, which is expected to go before the Serbian parliament in the next month.


Nonetheless, the court is not expected to be operational until the end of this year.


The special court will operate within the district courts of Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis and judges will be selected from the existing trial chambers.


"All types of war crimes will be prosecuted, including the most serious ones – genocide and crimes against civilian population," said a senior official in the justice ministry, Jovan Cosic.


At a round table organised by the justice ministry last weekend, human rights groups and non-government organisations praised Belgrade’s efforts, but warned that the endeavour would not be easy.


Some expressed concern that the authorities would exert control over the trials and mete out justice selectively. Corruption is still rife Serbia’s police and judiciary and many of those who supported Milosevic’s policies are still in positions of power.


"Serbia is in a very difficult situation,” said Srdja Popovic, a respected lawyer in Belgrade. “There is no consensus in place within political circles, cultural elite and the public about whether those who have been murdering people of other nationalities are war criminals or national heroes."


Popovic said it would be important that the trials begin before the UN tribunal finishes its work so that The Hague could monitor Serbia’s initial trials.


He added that he thought the creation of a Serbian war crimes court would help many Serbs overcome their hostility to prosecuting war crimes, pointing out that nearly every segment in society approved of local trials.


The nationalists, who do not trust the tribunal, the liberals, who perceive this as an opportunity to force the public to confront crimes committed in Serbia’s name, and the judiciary, which stands to gain new skills and respect in society, he said.


It was, perhaps inevitable, that the victims of Serbian crimes would be sceptical of Serbia creating its own court.


“I don’t believe in Serbian courts at all,” said BC, a refugee from Foca who is now living in Sarajevo. “How can you call it justice when the judge, the prosecutor and the jury are from the same ilk?”


But surprisingly, many others in Sarajevo lauded Belgrade’s effort.


“Until recently, the behavior of the government of Serbia showed that it could not provide conditions for objective and impartial judicial proceedings. There was no will in Serbia to arrest war criminals. They were allowed to roam around freely. But the crackdown on organised crime and everything else that followed gives some assurance that those proceedings could be impartial,” said Izet Bazdarevic, a respected judge on the Sarajevo appeals court.


In Belgrade, some legal experts said they feared that Serbia’s judiciary was not prepared to try war crimes cases, pointing out that many of the country’s judges were appointed during Milosevic’s reign.


Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Fund, warned that the judiciary would need extensive training. "Without foreign assistance Serbia will not be able to do this comprehensive and serious task," she said.


Jovan Nicic, a lawyer with the fund, told IWPR that he was worried about how the police would protect witnesses, “ This is a very sensitive issue…which thus far proved to be a considerable problem in Serbia.”


Nicic said he was also concerned about how the court would deal with charges such as command responsibility and crimes against humanity, which have been firmly established in international law, but never applied by the Serbian judiciary.


Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade. Amra Kebo is a commentator for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.


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