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

Serbia Tries Hague's Patience

War crimes process in Serbia held up by a political will and unreformed judicial system.
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

Goran Stoparic, former member of the special Serbian police unit the Scorpions, made some people nervous even before he testified in a Belgrade court against his fellow officers.

When the word got around he was to give evidence, Stoparic started getting visits from the latter, pressuring him to change his mind. Just before he was to appear in court last December, his onetime commander contacted him, warning that he would get rewarded if he testified in a “patriotic” manner and punished like a traitor if he failed to do so.

Stoparic’s testimony implicated a member of his unit in the execution of 14 Albanian civilians in the town of Podujevo during the Kosovo war in 1999. Immediately after his testimony, Stoparic was placed under police protection, with his brother bearing the brunt of public anger. His house was daubed with graffiti and he got phone calls form the former Scorpion members saying Stoparic was a “dead man”.

Stoparic spent months under police protection, holed up in a secret location. The Belgrade-based NGO Humanitarian Law Fund, which helped obtain Stoparic’s testimony, wrote in a recent report that the conditions under which he was kept amounted to mental torture.

The man Stoparic testified against eventually received a heavy prison sentence. Stoparic is now living outside Serbia under another identity and in constant fear of being discovered - unlike his former commander, who continues to live at home, as Serbian prosecutors seem little interested in his alleged command responsibility for the Podujevo crime.

The Podujevo trial illustrates some of the major problems that the Serbian courts are facing when trying to conduct trials for crimes committed in any of the many wars that Serbia was engaged in the early Nineties.

Be it the crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia or Kosovo, the pattern is the same – the accused are mainly foot soldiers, volunteers or reservists; the witnesses are few and terrified; the procedures are sloppy.

The trials, moreover, are few and far between. While Bosnia and Croatia already tried tens of people and indicted hundreds, Serbia has so far completed just eight war crimes trials and has only a handful of investigations in progress.

Four years after the fall of Milosevic regime “there is no political will in Serbia to try people for war crimes”, said Natasa Kandic of the Humanitarian Law Centre.

The political climate in Serbia, never too conducive to war crimes trials, has been even less so following the election of a conservative government earlier this year.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is a consistent opponent of the Hague tribunal, but - in words at least - a supporter of domestic war crimes trials. His government is however confronted by stiff opposition in the form of the ultra- nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, the largest single party in the Serbian parliament.

SRS is staunchly opposed to any sort of cooperation with The Hague, where its leader Vojislav Seselj is currently awaiting trial.

The lack of any progress in trying war crimes is becoming apparent at a very awkward moment – just as the tribunal is announcing the first cases to be deferred to local courts, in accordance with its completion strategy.

The strategy predicts the closure of the tribunal at 2010, and foresees the possibility that a number of lower- and mid-ranking indictees would to be sent for trial in the Balkans – if, that is, the relevant judicial systems demonstrate that they are able to conduct such trials.

Tribunal officials have already said they would first seek transfers to Croatia and Bosnia. Chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte announced last autumn in her speech to the Security Council that she was considering transferring two cases involving six suspects to Belgrade, but nine months on court insiders indicate that there’s no chance of this happening.

The mistrust between Belgrade and The Hague is reaching levels similar to that during the times of former president Slobodan Milosevic – now himself a Hague defendant.

Del Ponte has this week described Belgrade’s cooperation with the tribunal as “non-existent.” According to a letter that the presiding judge Theodore Meron sent to the UN security council this May, this ranges from the Belgrade government’s refusal to secure documentary evidence to not granting waivers to enable witnesses to provide statements to prosecutors.

In the first months after the fall of the Milosevic regime in October 2000, the Belgrade government began transferring a number of former top politicians to the tribunal, among them the deposed Serbian strongman.

It was presented to the Serbian public as a necessary move to secure financial aid for the reconstruction of the country. But it caused a great deal of resentment nonetheless – and there are suggestions that the assassination of premier Zoran Djindjic last spring may have had a lot to do with his cooperative Hague policy.

The new Serbian government is not only reluctant to work with the tribunal, it is also showing little willingness to start any large-scale domestic trials. This despite the veritable piles of evidence made public at the Milosevic trial and the mass graves of Kosovo Albanians discovered in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica two years ago.

The only visible step forward was the formation last autumn of a special war crimes trials chamber in the Belgrade district court, tasked with prosecuting and trying war crimes. But last month the prosecutor’s spokesman Bruno Vekaric, in an interview with the IWPR, suggested they were facing an uphill struggle in trying to enlist the help of the army and police with their investigations.

Reluctance is logical, says Kandic, "Many Serbian officers in the army and police are afraid that such investigations could sooner or later land them in court.”

In the trials that have taken place, there have been no high-ranking defendants. “The state has an obvious intention to limit the trials only to the lowest-ranking perpetrators of crimes,” said Sefko Alomerovic, head of the Helsinki Board for Human Rights in the Sandzak province.

Alomerovic was involved in the trial of a person accused of kidnapping and later murdering 17 Serbian Muslim citizens who had been travelling on a commuter train. A Serbian state railways document tendered at the trial and seen by the IWPR proved that the railway officials knew about the abduction in advance and had informed the Serbian defence minister about it, yet this was never investigated. “Names of many officials were called out in courtrooms yet the state has still not lifted a finger to call them in for questioning, let alone to put them on trial,” said Alomerovic.

Some say the reason for this is that there are no local laws relating to command responsibility – apparently Belgrade is signatory to various conventions concerning them but they were never incorporated into the criminal code.

The tribunal's outreach coordinator in Belgrade Aleksandra Milenov has stressed that the tribunal will not transfer a single case to a Balkan court if it suspects that the crimes they’re accused of will not be prosecuted properly.

“But if command responsibility is a problem, then crimes such as ‘failure to act’ or ‘complicity in crime’ cannot be a problem even under the Serbian laws,” said Ivan Jovanovic, the OSCE national legal advisor for war crimes.

“If there was a political will to punish the perpetrators, these laws would suffice to derive command responsibility from them,” said Srdja Popovic, a liberal Belgrade lawyer.

There are signs that the authorities are prepared to address at least some flaws in the Serbian judicial system.

A special law on war crimes, drafted with the help of the OSCE, was adopted by the Serbian parliament in July last year.

Sonja Prostran, spokesperson for the newly formed war crimes chamber, said the Serbian criminal code could soon be amended to include crimes against humanity and the crime of command responsibility – but they could not be used to try crimes committed before their adoption.

And a recently formed working group in the Serbian parliament is busy drafting a law on witness protection, which could offer some guarantees to people who, like Goran Stoparic, could face serious threats for testifying in war crimes trials. The bill is to be tabled in the Serbian parliament for adoption by the end of June.

The need for such law transpired only after Djindjic’s assassination, when the case against his killers started falling apart because witnesses feared for their safety.

Observers believe that protected witnesses, as in the case of Stoparic, should be found secret locations outside Serbia, because of concerns of their whereabouts being leaked. Ilias Chatzis, the head of the OSCE department supervising judicial reform in Serbia, insisted in the interview with the IWPR that any witness protection programme should be “regional” in its scope.

The OSCE has drafted a wide-ranging strategy for the reform of the Serbian judiciary as a whole - and is hoping politicians will create a climate conducive to war crimes trials being conducted properly. But some observers are not very optimistic. “Courts in Serbia will feel insecure,” said Srdja Popovic, “because every judge knows that he won’t have public support for any of the decisions he passes.”

Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade. Ana Uzelac, IWPR programme manager in The Hague, contributed to this report.