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8 December 2015
Analysis

Bosnian Courts Deny Compensation to War Prisoners

Albina Sorguč BIRN BiH Sarajevo

Former prisoners seeking compensation for their mental suffering in detention camps are being forced to pay thousands of euros to file claims or losing their assets when their claims are ruled invalid.

Former detainees in Bosnia and Herzegovina must pay between 1,000 and 5,000 euros if they want to file claims for compensation for the suffering they endured in prison camps - a large sum in this impoverished country.

But some ex-prisoners who managed to file claims have ended up being forced to pay the courts’ fees because judges have insisted that the statute of limitations has expired.

Courts in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, have declared that the statute of limitations expired in all such lawsuits because the deadline for cases to be filed passed in 2001.

Although courts in Bosnia’s other entity, the Federation, have handed down verdicts in favour of some detainees, the statute of limitations issue also has been raised in some recent decisions.

Representatives of former prisoners said the situation was causing yet more stress for people who had already been through traumatic experiences in wartime.

“We are appalled by the fact that former detainees who suffered during the war are now forced to pay these fees,” said Jasmin Meskovic, the president of the Association of Detainees of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Even in cases where courts in the Federation have ruled in favour of detainees, they have not been able to get the compensation because the Federation has not paid up.

If the Federation doesn’t pay, the courts can freeze its accounts, so the Federation has been changing its bank account numbers to avoid them being frozen.

The Ministry of Finance of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina said that it changes its account numbers because of “the risk of loss of funds”, but did not explain why it is not paying the compensation it owes to the former detainees.

Salaries seized

Around 1,000 first-instance verdicts have been handed down in favour of former detainees in the Federation and in Republika Srpska before 2001.

But only one of them managed to secure damages - in 2012, Samir Pojskic received compensation of 1,600 euros for 16 days’ imprisonment in the Kaonik detention camp in Busovaca in central Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Suljo Topcic was one of the unlucky ones. He spent 14 months in detention camps in Susica and Batkovic in eastern Bosnia during the war, and filed a lawsuit to a court in Republika Srpska asking for damages.

The court ruled that the statute of limitations had expired and rejected his case. Because he lost, Topcic was ordered to pay 670 euros in court costs, which is now being deducted from his wages when they are paid into his account.

“Half of my salary is being switched to Republika Srpska,” said Topcic.

In another case, Hasan Celikovic’s appeal for compensation for the 17 months he spent in a wartime detention camp was also rejected by a court in Republika Srpska.

Since then, bailiffs have been trying to retrieve the court costs of about 750 euros.

“As if 17 months of torture was not enough for me, they are terrorising me again in my own house,” said Celikovic.

Appealing to Strasbourg

Adrijana Hanusic, a lawyer with the Track Impunity Always NGO, said that because there is no statute of limitations on prosecuting war crimes, it should also not exist for compensation of wartime damages.

“These cases are opened as a consequence of war crimes,” she explained.

The former inmates now believe the problem can only be solved if the Law on Victims of Torture, which has been drafted eight times but never approved, is finally adopted at the state level, or if the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg rules that the statute of limitations does not apply to such cases.

“We are seeking protection; a proper and humane approach to victims from the European Court of Human Rights,” said Meskovic.

“If they say that there can be no statute of limitations for war crimes, how it can it be that the claims of the victims are outdated?” he asked.

He said it was necessary to harmonise court practices across the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina, so different entities treat all victims in the same way.

He explained that the problem was huge - so far 30,000 applications for compensation have been filed, he estimated, 90 per cent of them to courts in Republika Srpska.

A lawyer acting for the detainees, Nedzla Sehic, also said that the authorities must ensure that anyone who files a lawsuit for compensation should not have to pay court costs.

“It would be good to change the law so everyone who files an application for compensation - people who suffered torture as a result of war crimes and crimes against humanity - are freed from paying all judicial costs,” Sehic insisted.

“This is the only way to ensure these people who have suffered so much have access to courts. Until this happens, these people do not have the right to any legal protection,” she said.

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