Serbia and Bosnia – uniting for justice?

Belgrade and Sarajevo are to sign an agreement to cooperate over war crimes cases, but some victims fear that it may not bring more convictions. 

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Conflict Background


By Marija Ristic and Denis Dzidic 

On January 31st in Brussels, Serbian and Bosnian prosecutors are due to sign a deal committing them to working together over prosecutions of those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The protocol is intended to address the issue of parallel investigations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, enable the mutual transfer of evidence between the two countries and regulate trials of suspects in their own country for war crimes committed in the other.

International organisations who mediated talks to hammer out the protocol say it will speed up war crime prosecutions – which have been criticised for their slow progress, and reassure victims that justice will be done. “The perception of injustice still prevails throughout the region,” said Romana Schweiger, head of the rule of law and human rights office at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Belgrade. “The aim of the protocol is to bring more justice to war crimes victims and bring confidence among countries in the region,” she said.

But some Bosnian war crimes victims are suspicious that Serbian courts may not treat their cases fairly. “We are worried because we know there have been some war crime cases in Serbia that ended with minimal convictions,” said Murat Tahirovic, president of the Bosnian organisation, Victims and Witnesses of Genocide.

Hiding behind borders

International organisations have long been urging the two states to sign the protocol, saying it represents a crucial step towards better relations between Belgrade and Sarajevo over prosecutions for crimes committed during the 1990s conflict. “This is a crucial element for the enhancement of regional cooperation in war crimes cases,” said Andy McGuffie, the EU delegation’s spokesperson in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, said the protocol would “offer practical solutions for improving investigative capacity and strengthening the professional interaction between prosecutors’ offices”. The ICTY is set to close after finishing its work by the end of 2014, leaving all future trials in the hands of national courts. The protocol will make this easier, the OSCE’s Schweiger said, adding that “given the regional aspect of the crimes, this task cannot be handled by one national court alone.”

Officials in both countries are also optimistic about the protocol, although they have declined to discuss all of its details. “The only way forward is to cooperate with our neighbours. This way we will speed up prosecutions and put an end to this entire period once and for all,” said Bosnian justice minister, Barisa Colak. “There is no other way to solve this issue, because there is no extradition in war crimes cases in the region,” he added.

Serbia’s deputy prosecutor for war crimes, Bruno Vekaric, said that cooperation between prosecutors was the only way to try those who have so far managed to evade justice. “Due to the complexity of war crimes which are usually committed in one country, then victims are in the other countries, this protocol is the only way to overcome this obstacle as the perpetrators are usually hiding behind the borders of the country they committed a crime,” Vekaric said.

Colak said that the protocol contains a clause stating that before a case is transferred from Bosnia and Serbia, there must be consultations with the representatives of victims who will be able to veto the process.

A second-class prosecution?

The prosecutors’ promises haven’t managed to convince victims’ support groups in Bosnia, however. Tahirovic expressed doubts that victims would always be consulted and said that the protocol could put the Bosnian prosecution in an inferior position to its Serbian counterpart. “We become just an outpost for the Serbian judiciary and all we do is send along evidence and cases,” he said He said there was no reason to accept Serbia’s “self-proclaimed wish to be the regional international war crimes tribunal”.

Others doubted Serbia’s commitment to prosecuting its own citizens for war crimes. Hatidza Mehmedovic, president of the Srebrenica mothers’ association, said that many war crimes suspects were evading justice by hiding in Serbia. She said that made her doubt that Belgrade was willing to deal with the past – particularly the mass killings at Srebrenica, where more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys died in 1995. “A large number of those people who were in Srebrenica in 1995 are in Serbia now,” said Mehmedovic. “Serbia sentenced us once and now we should let them sentence us again? They sentenced us in 1995 – our children to death, and us, the families, to eternal suffering,” she said.

Bosnian prosecutors last year issued an international warrant for two former Bosnian Serb soldiers, Brano Gojkovic and Milorad Pelemis, suspected of genocide for their involvement in the Srebrenica massacres. Both men are believed to be in Serbia. But Serbian deputy prosecutor Vekaric said that the Bosnian victims’ fears were unfounded because his office is already working on the case, even before the protocol is signed. “We have been investigating Srebrenica since last year. And I can say that we are doing everything we can, but the Bosnian prosecution recently refused to provide us the evidence and documents crucial for the case,” Vekaric said.

The exact number of cases that will be exchanged after the new protocol is signed is unknown, but experts predict that it will not be less than 100. Serbian prosecutors are currently investigating war crimes 100 cases, while their Bosnian counterparts are looking into 648 cases. According to the Serbian prosecutor, without the new protocol in place, the two countries have so far exchanged nine cases.

Several of those cases came from the northern Bosnian town of Bihac, where the local prosecutor, Jasmin Mesic, expressed full satisfaction with the professionalism of the Serbian judiciary. “We know the trials in Serbia are being monitored by the OSCE office, and we have no doubt about the rule of law. Through our cooperation with Serbia, we have solved several murder cases during the war in northern Bosnia which would have otherwise been left unprosecuted,” Mesic said.

“We believe it is better for suspects to be tried anywhere than nowhere,” he said.

Marija Ristic and Denis Dzidic are the Balkan Transitional Justice initiative’s Serbian and Bosnian correspondents, respectively.

This article was originally published by Balkan Insight’s Balkan Transitional Justice initiative, a regional initiative funded by the European Commission and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland that aims to improve the general public’s understanding of transitional justice issues in former Yugoslav countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia).

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