Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serb Judges Meet Hague Officials

Belgrade's continued non-cooperation casts a shadow over war crimes judges' visit to tribunal.
By Ana Uzelac

Seven judges and three deputy chief prosecutors from the special war crimes department of the Belgrade district court spent time at the tribunal this week discussing possible future cooperation between the two courts.


The Hague visit - the longest and most high-profile by members of the Serbian judiciary - was “aimed at building channels of communication” between the Belgrade court and the tribunal and “facilitating the transfer of knowledge and experience”, said the tribunal spokesman Jim Landale.


The special war crimes department - comprising nine judges and five prosecutors - is currently trying its first war crimes case, relating to the massacre of Croatian civilians at Ovcara farm near Croatian city of Vukovar in autumn 1991. Hague prosecutors provided a lot of the evidence for the case.


During their week-long visit, the judges and the prosecutors focused on technical and mundane details of possible future cooperation, ranging from software transfers to the use of the tribunal’s unique jurisprudence in Serbian courts.


The visit follows the Belgrade’s repeated insistence that citizens of Serbia indicted by the tribunal should be tried at home, supporting its preference by citing the Hague court’s completion strategy which envisages the transfer of cases to the Balkans.


During a parallel visit of the Serbian justice minister Zoran Stojkovic in the same week, senior tribunal officials stressed that Serbia had yet to undertake serious cooperation with The Hague.


”President [of the Hague tribunal, judge Theodore] Meron wishes to make it abundantly clear that he reminded the delegation that Serbia must live up to its international obligations fully and unconditionally,” Landale said at a press conference in the Hague. “He asked that the Belgrade authorities resume active cooperation with the prosecutor without further delay and stated that that cooperation must be full.”


Last week, Judge Meron complained to the UN Security Council about Belgrade’s unwillingness to cooperate, saying the process had virtually come to a halt since the change of government in Serbia last winter.


The war crimes department in the Belgrade district court was opened in October last year, just a few months before the parliamentary elections in Serbia brought about a new ruling coalition, headed by Vojislav Kostunica, a staunch critic of the tribunal.


His government faces pressure from a strong nationalistic opposition hostile to cooperation on the one hand and the international community demanding the extradition of numerous fugitive indictees, on the other.


But even if the latter goes ahead, problems may remain. The Belgrade department, tribunal insiders warn, could be vulnerable to political pressure from authorities who still have a poor understanding of the need to hold war crimes trials.


Representatives of the new department have hinted that they’re facing something of a political battle. “There is a strong understanding [here] that these crimes should be prosecuted, and that we should be politically independent,” said spokesman for the department’s prosecutor office Bruno Vekaric. “But the success of your work will still depend for instance on whether the police forces will cooperate with investigations...”


And there are technical problems too, such as the lack of both witness protection programmes and legislation regulating command responsibility, and the inadmissibility of lots of evidence collected by the Hague tribunal in the Serbian judicial system.


The Belgrade war crimes department’s spokesperson, Sonja Prostran, said its members’ visit was an attempt “to make the Hague tribunal officials realise the of amount problems our department is facing with: from technical to legal”.


Prostran said she was hoping that the new law on witness protection - currently drafted by a special working group of the Serbian parliament - would bolster the department’s cause.


Meanwhile, it is preparing a second Ovcara trial. Other cases that may be taken up concern the mass graves of Kosovo Albanians around the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica.


Ana Uzelac is IWPR programme manager in The Hague.