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

Witnesses Left Vulnerable by Stretched Bosnian Courts

Although victims are frustrated with the slow pace, tribunal officials claim Bosnian courts are doing a good job.
In April, Bakira Hasecic was about to testify to the War Crimes Court in Sarajevo when she had a flashback, the past returned in all its terrifying details.

Hasesic, who was raped in the town of Visegrad during the war in Bosnia, had been called to testify in the trial of Zeljko Lelek, who is accused of abusing Bosnian women like her, but found herself unable to speak.

“All of 1992 came back to me. All of the crimes and how they pushed me into the police station in Foca,” Hasecic told IWPR.

The judges agreed to give her a break, but while she waited for hours, no one asked if she was hungry or thirsty. She eventually asked court staff for something to eat and they brought her both sandwiches and the bill.

It was perhaps a small insult when added to the threatening phone calls and letters urging her not to testify but Hasecic said it illustrated the problems facing courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina as they attempt to bring justice for the war crimes of the past.

Hasecic, who heads the Association of Women Victims of the War, has also known women who have fainted, suffered health problems and even killed themselves as the painful memories of the war come back when they tell their stories to prosecutors or testify at trials.

“There needs to be a change in the mechanism of witness protection itself,” she said.

But the Bosnian court system is overwhelmed by the aftermath of the 1992-5 war which killed 100,000 people and displaced a million.

The courts will take decades to process all the allegations of war crimes that have been made, while many suspects can protect themselves by the simple expedient of going to Serbia or Croatia.

Vesna Tancica of the state prosecutor’s office told a conference in Sarajevo this week that the system lacked staff and resources to investigate cases and try accused war criminals, struggled to obtain military documents, and battled against the rights of people with dual citizenship who can flee across borders to avoid prosecution.

“Due to the politicisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and neighbouring countries [some] perpetrators of war crimes are still seen as war heroes,” Tancica told the gathering.

“There is no consensus that perpetrators of war crimes need to be punished regardless of who they are and the positions they hold.”

Bosnia’s state prosecutor Marinko Jurcevic said the country needed a streamlined process to secure more plea bargains and to take the pressure off the courts, but added that prosecutors should be more decisive when it came to dropping or continuing with cases.

So far prosecutors have lacked the courage to dismiss cases where they simply have no concrete evidence, he said, adding that cases could always be reopened when and if witnesses come forward and evidence is produced.

“Prosecutors have not done enough,” Jurcevic told the conference. “If there is no evidence, the charges should be dropped. … But no one wants to undertake that.”

Nevertheless, most observers agree that the legal system is making progress in its battle to bring justice to Bosnia’s many victims.

Since its inception in March 2005, the special department for organised crime of the prosecutor’s office has issued 38 indictments against 63 suspects, and taken up nine cases handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

The courts have issued sentences ranging from five to 34 years imprisonment – the longest going to Gojko Jankovic for raping captured Bosniak women in Foca.

The special department has 312 active investigations ongoing against more than 830 people - including an unspecified number which were passed over by prosecutors at the Hague tribunal who won’t have time for the trials before the court is closed down in 2010.

And so far the ICTY is very pleased with the results, said Refik Hodzic, the ICTY’s outreach coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The cases that have been transferred were tried according to the highest international standards,” he told IWPR.

And the state court, though lacking the resources of the ICTY and the ability to relocate protected witnesses to other countries, has become one of the best in the region at witness protection, he added.

However, the sheer scale of the crimes committed during the war in Bosnia means that local courts will have to shoulder much of the burden of prosecutions, while alternative systems need to be discovered to deal with some of the crimes.

“There has to be an understanding that if all the courts in Bosnia work only on these cases, with all the resources in the world, we would need 30 or 40 years to get through 10,000 people,” said Hodzic.

“It has to be understood in the country here that this is a process that will go on for years and decades.”

But the local courts would struggle to take work from the War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo, because they lack staff, money, equipment and experience, said Nerma Jelacic, Bosnia country director for the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network and a veteran war crimes trial watcher.

“I don’t know of any local court that applies witness protection,” she said.

“They don’t have the capacity to deal with more than one or two war crimes cases at a time. … They’re completely under-equipped especially in terms of investigative ability. The situation before these courts needs to come to attention.”

Many of the local prosecutors at the conference echoed that complaint and called for more resources from the government.

However, Hodzic noted that some of the obstacles to war crimes trials will have to be tackled at a higher level. Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro all have legal or constitutional measures barring extradition, meaning suspects can flee across the border to avoid prosecution in Bosnia.

“It is something that the governments need to deal with,” said Hodzic.

“It would be tragic if we were to see that just a simple act of crossing a border can protect someone from a court order which deals with possible responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Hasecic agreed that things are improving, but she’s frustrated with the slow pace.

“It has improved from last year to this year, but at this rate it will take 600 years,” she said, adding that the perceived impunity and the fact that many perpetrators are in police forces - having secured their positions as veterans of the war - is a major obstacle for those displaced by the war to return home.

But frustrated as she sometimes is, Hasecic also sees hopeful signs. Her organisation collects victim and witness statements for the prosecution and encourages witnesses to come forward.

And because of their work, and the courage many women have shown in testifying about being raped, she is starting to see men overcome their shame by admitting to having been sexually abused in detention during the war.

“They stated that when they saw how brave the women were, they thought that they should come forward and stop the silence … and look the war criminals in the eyes,” she said.

Brendan McKenna and Denza Dzidic are IWPR reporters.

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