Provoking ethnic, racial or religious hatred is a crime in Bosnia, but prosecutors rarely charge suspects and experts believe that vulnerable minorities who returned to their homes after being expelled during the war are fearful of reporting incidents.
By Mladen Lakic
The Bosnian public was shocked last month by media reports that Azrin Hodzic, a Bosniak who had returned to the Serb-majority town of Prijedor in the country’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity after the war, had been forced by a Serbs man to remove a sticker showing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s coat of arms from his vehicle’s trailer and told to beg forgiveness from the Serbs.
Hodzic’s assailant, Renato Marjanovic, filmed the incident. The video, which Marjanovic posted on Facebook but later removed, showed him telling his Bosniak victim: “Now, say aloud that you ask the Bosnian Serbs for forgiveness and say that you respect Republika Srpska and [Bosnian Serb political leader] Milorad Dodik.”
Marjanovic was arrested on March 12, and police in Prijedor confirmed that he was being investigated on suspicion of committing the criminal offence of abuse, torture or other inhumane and humiliating treatment.
But the fact that the incident was not classified as a hate-motivated crime has caused concern among post-war returnees in the country – as well as raising the question of whether hate crimes are being properly investigated.
Hodzic said he had never met Marjanovic before that day, and that he cannot explain what sparked the attack.
“First, I was in shock that he was asking me to remove the Bosnian emblem, I thought it was some weird joke… then he attacked me, from behind,” he told BIRN.
Mirsad Duratovic, a local councillor in Prijedor, said that he will file an official request to Republika Srpska’s Interior Ministry, asking for the offence to be reclassified as a hate crime.
“This attack was motivated by hate, it was based on national [ethnic], racial and religious hatred, and we, Bosniak officials in Prijedor, had a joint meeting at which this request was one of the main conclusions,” Duratovic told BIRN.
Republika Srpska’s Interior Ministry did not respond to BIRN’s inquiries about the issue by the time of publication.
Shortly after the coat-of-arms incident, Alen Dzindo, another post-war returnee in Vlasenica, a municipality in eastern Republika Srpska, said that his family had discovered five bombs in their back yard.
“I do not suspect myself, my wife and children or the people who are working here,” Dzindo told Sarajevo-based news site Radiosarajevo.ba on March 18.
Police in Zvornik, who are in charge of the Vlasenica area, told BIRN that they are investigating and cannot provide details about the case.
The two incidents came after Western diplomats expressed concern about the alleged incitement of religious and ethnic hatred at a rally held by uniform-clad Serb nationalist Chetnik supporters in the Republika Srpska town of Visegrad on March 10.
The US embassy in Sarajevo said it was “appalled by reports of threats and nationalistic rhetoric” at the rally.
Members of the Ravna Gora Movement – widely known as the Chetniks – wore black uniforms at the event and reportedly sang ethnically provocative songs. An investigation is ongoing.
Many hate crimes unreported
Bosnia and Herzegovina is mostly calm, and the number of ethnically-motivated incidents being reported remains low. However, prosecutors in Republika Srpska seem reluctant to use hate crime legislation.
Dragica Tojagic, a spokesperson for the Republika Srpska public prosecutor’s office, told BIRN that in 2018 and 2017 there were “no upheld or confirmed indictments for hate crimes”.
Bosnian security and statistical institutions do not keep separate data on hate crimes related to ethnicity or religion, so the most reliable figures on such incidents come from the OSCE’s mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which compiles a monthly ‘Hate Monitor’.
The OSCE logged a total of 33 cases of suspected hate crimes in the first three months of 2019 – 11 in January, six in February and 16 in March. Most of the cases involved physical violence, but there were also incidents of damage to religious buildings and the desecration of graveyards.
The OSCE recorded a total of 113 hate-motivated incidents in the country over the course of 2018, and 173 in 2017.
“When the data are classified according to the target or victim, it can be seen that the vast majority of these incidents are directed against groups or individuals based on their ethnic or religious affiliation,” Halisa Skopljak, legal adviser at the OSCE’s mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, told BIRN.
Provoking ethnic, racial and religious hatred, discord and intolerance are offences under Article 145a of the Bosnian criminal code. But since these provisions were introduced in 2010, only four relevant court cases have been concluded, with three convictions and one acquittal.
In one of the cases, in June 2015, a court in the town of Bijeljina gave a six-month prison sentence to a Bosnian Serb who attacked two Bosniaks, a father and son, near a mosque in Zvornik. The offence was initially classified by the police as “causing body injuries”, but the prosecution subsequently recognised hatred as a significant factor.
In the same period, Bosnian courts issued 24 final judgments for provoking hatred. Five of the cases ended in acquittals and there were 19 convictions.
But the OSCE mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina suspects that the real number of hate crimes could be higher.
“Indicators show that the number of reported incidents affected by prejudice does not correspond to the actual number of incidents. The mission has begun an analysis of this discrepancy in data, starting with research into the problem of non-reporting of these incidents, and intends to continue to conduct an analysis in this direction,” Skopljak said.
Post-war returnees are seen as some of the most vulnerable to attacks inspired by ethnic hatred, particularly those who returned to areas from which they were expelled during the 1992-95 conflict, and where they are now in the minority.
“Every attack on returnees can be seen as an attack on every single one of us since these attacks represent a direct threat to everything that has been done in the previous years when it comes to peacebuilding and process of return and integration,” Semiha Borovac, Bosnia’s Minister for Human Rights and Refugees, said last year after cars owned by a Bosniak returnee family were set on fire in Sokolac, where the majority of local residents are Serbs.
The Dayton peace agreement, which ended the Bosnian war, insists that every refugee and displaced person from the 1990s conflict has a right to return freely to their pre-war homes.
The peace agreement further declares that the authorities must ensure they can return in safety, “without risk of harassment, intimidation, persecution, or discrimination, particularly on account of their ethnic origin, religious belief, or political opinion”.
But because official statistics are not kept and prosecutions are few, it remains unclear how widespread cases of ethnically-based harassment and intimidation are in Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than two decades after the war.