Regional Report: Serbian Judiciary on Trial

The Sjeverin case is being seen as a test of the Serbian judiciary’s ability to try suspected war criminals.

Regional Report: Serbian Judiciary on Trial

The Sjeverin case is being seen as a test of the Serbian judiciary’s ability to try suspected war criminals.

A four-day questioning of Djordje Sevic and some 15 witnesses last week ended the first part of his trial for the kidnapping and murder of 17 Muslims in October 1992.

Sevic is charged with the abduction of Muslims travelling in a bus in Sjeverin and their subsequent detention and murder in Visegrad a few days later.

The Belgrade trial is set to continue on February 17. In the meantime, the court has to decide whether to accept new witnesses put forward by the defence.

The case has become a trial not just of the accused, but also of the Serbian judicial system.

Four men are accused of the kidnapping. Two - Milan Lukic and Oliver Krsmanovic - are on the run. Both are also charged with another kidnapping, of 20 Muslims seized in Strpce in 1993.

Sevic is standing trial alongside Dragutin Dragicevic, who has chosen not to testify.

“The trial for Sjeverin should show that no one is above the law, and that both Milan Lukic and Oliver Krsmanovic should be brought to justice,” said Natasa Kandic, director of the Fund for Humanitarian Law in Belgrade, which is representing families of the victims.

“These are serious crimes that are connected to each other, because after Sjeverin there was also kidnapping of people from Bukovica and then kidnapping in Strpce.”

Analysts say war crimes trials are only being held because of pressure from the international community.

Bogdan Ivanisevic, from Human Rights Watch, believes that "a lack of political will and the failure of the police to provide evidence to the prosecutor's office has significantly impeded the prosecution of war cromes cases in Serbia". Sefko Alomerovic, head of the Helsinki Board in Sandzak, a predominantly Muslim area of southern Serbia where the victims came from, said the trial was a “farce”.

Of the many problems the trial is facing, analysts says two could have a very strong bearing on its outcome.

One is the protection of witnesses, which Ivanisevic said “could easily be seen when members of the families were giving statements, evidently in fear”.

Another is that the prosecution appears to be trying to absolve the state of any involvement by describing the killers as paramilitaries.

But journalists, Milos Vasic and Filip Svarm, who work for the respected weekly Vreme, have suggested that this argument won’t stand up to scrutiny, as a secret army decree in 1991 ruled that all military formations came under the control of Yugoslav forces.

And there’s other information connecting the defendants with the Belgrade military authorities. At the time of the crime, Lukic was commander of the Territorial Defence of Visegrad, a unit of part-time soldiers affiliated to the federal army command structure.

Lawyers representing the victims will request access to classified military documents, and will also call some witnesses not brought forward by the prosecution, including the former commander of the Yugoslav army’s Visegrad brigade, Colonel Luka Dragicevic.

These extra witnesses are vital, says defence lawyer Dragoljub Todorovic, “because of the well-founded suspicion that this crime was organised by the state”.

Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is a regular IWPR contributor.

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