Half as many people have been charged with war crimes by the Bosnian state prosecution this year compared to 2018, causing war victims’ groups to warn that some perpetrators may never face justice.
By Albina Sorguc
uring the course of 2019 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 27 state prosecutors dealing with war crimes filed 17 indictments by December 29, an analysis by BIRN has shown.
Under these indictments, 32 individuals have been charged, compared to just over 60 people in 2018.
Out of the 17 indictments, three have been referred to entity-level courts, and at least four indictees are unavailable to the Bosnian judicial authorities at the moment.
Lawyer Vasvija Vidovic told BIRN that more indictments could be expected before the end of 2019, because the practice in the past has been to file indictments in the last few days of the year.
“There are still many mass crimes, particularly in the eastern Bosnia area, whose perpetrators have not been charged as yet, although solid documentation about these crimes exists,” said Vidovic.
She said that the state prosecution should focus its resources on these more serious cases rather than on “less extensive crimes and less significant cases in terms of perpetrators’ rank”.
Over the course of 2019, the Bosnian state court has handed down 24 second-instance verdicts, sentencing 33 people to 318 years in prison for war crimes. Interpol has issued ‘red notices’ for the arrest of three people with second-instance convictions. Meanwhile 12 people have been acquitted in second-instance verdicts in ten different cases.
Representatives of associations of war victims and wartime detainees said they were dissatisfied with the work of the state prosecution in 2019.
Bakira Hasecic, president of the Women – Victims of War association, said that survivors see the number of indictments filed and confirmed in 2019 as inadequate, particularly when it comes to wartime rape and sexual abuse cases, as well as other cases in which witnesses personally saw murders.
Karlo Maric, president of the Croatian Association of Detainees of the Homeland War in Bosnia and Herzegovina, argued that dividing up one case into several indictments delays proceedings.
“As time passes by, more and more people lose hope that justice will be achieved. Biology takes its toll, people die without being brought to court,” Maric said.
The majority of indictments issued in 2019 cover one suspect only. In two cases, seven and eight people have been charged.
The country’s revised War Crimes Processing Strategy, which was aimed at clearing the huge backlog of unprocessed cases, but was not adopted by the Council of Ministers in 2019 despite being ready, says that the prosecution has over 550 unsolved cases involving more than 4,500 identified perpetrators and as many cases against unidentified ones.
No indictments for Srebrenica this year
This year, the state prosecution has not accused anyone of involvement in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.
“The fact that no indictments for the Srebrenica genocide have been filed is the best proof that the prosecution is focusing on less large-scale crimes and individuals less responsible for war crimes,” Vidovic said.
Four of the people charged with war crimes in 2019 are not available to judicial authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Two of them are in Serbia, one is in Canada and the fourth is wartime Serb paramilitary leader Milan Lukic, who has been in prison in Estonia for five years serving a life sentence imposed by the Hague Tribunal for wartime crimes in the Visegrad area.
The Bosnian state prosecution indicted Lukic for kidnapping passengers, who were then killed, from a train in Strpci in February 1993.
Vidovic argued that as Lukic has already been sentenced to life in prison, there was no urgent purpose for indicting him in Bosnia.
“I am not saying that proceedings should not be conducted, but I think the resources could have been used for investigating some other crimes in the Visegrad area, which were equally grave and massive, as well as crimes in the Gorazde, Kalinovik, Foca area and any other area of eastern Bosnia affected by the war, and finally also Bratunac and Srebrenica in 1992,” she said.
Jovan Kusic, alias Joja, and Branislav Vukovic, alias Bato, who worked at the Bosnian Serb police’s Public Security Station in Pale during the war, are also unavailable to the judicial authorities. The prosecution believes that Kusic lives in Serbia and Vukovic in Canada.
They are accused of participating in the unlawful detention, torture, abuse and beating of Bosniak civilian detainees held in a gym at a cultural centre in Pale.
Milojko Kovacevic, who lives in Serbia, is also unavailable to Bosnian prosecutors. According to the charges against him, Kovacevic, who worked at the Bosnian Serb police’s Public Security Station in Visegrad during the war, seized, tortured, abused and assaulted Bosniak civilians.
Hasecic warned that suspects are evading the Bosnian judiciary by “seeking shelter in neighbouring countries whose citizenships they have”.
Trials drag on, defendants die
In October, Milan Bogdanovic, a former commander of Bosnian Serb police special units who was initially acquitted of capturing Bosniak men from Srebrenica who were then abused and killed in July 1995, died before the final verdict in his trial.
His case highlighted concerns that because of the length of proceedings at the state court, some defendants die before justice can be served.
Lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic noted that fewer hearings have been held at the Bosnian state court in 2019 in comparison to previous years, and said that the court had showed a liberal and tolerant attitude to defendants’ requests for delays on health grounds, making cases drag on for longer.
“Medical doctors are more frequently appearing as court experts whose task is to say whether a defendant can stand trial and attend hearings. This may be the objective result of the defendants’ age or the result of a more liberal attitude by trial chambers towards such procedural situations, but my specific impression is that this has slightly slowed down the trials and reduced the number of hearings,” Stojanovic said.
Although the number of indictments keeps decreasing year after year, Gordana Tadic, the country’s chief prosecutor, said in a recent interview with BIRN that she was satisfied with the number of indictments filed.
In 2017, the prosecution filed 38 indictments, and in 2018 it filed 27, but only 17 this year by the time of publication.
“In no way have our results been devastating, but very encouraging,” Tadic insisted.
She argued that “long and intensive investigations are needed before filing indictments” and insisted that by the end of the year, the amount of indictments would be “about as many” as in 2018.
Stojanovic said that each prosecutor had to fill an annual quota for indictments.
“I have the impression that many prosecutors become nervous and try to issue indictments in the last month of the year; they are in a hurry in order to fill their quotas,” he suggested.
“That is not good, because the question is what they have been doing the whole year and if you are rushing it now, you might find yourself in a situation in which your indictments are not confirmed or you might accuse someone who objectively should not have been accused.”