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24 August 2016

Bosnian War Crimes Suspects Shun Plea Bargains

Albina Sorguč BIRN BiH Sarajevo

Fewer than 30 plea bargains have been made in war crimes cases, even though prosecutors say they often yield information about mass graves or about other perpetrators of atrocities.

Plea bargains in which defendants admit their guilt are rare in war crimes cases in Bosnia and Herzegovina, even though the state prosecution believes they are useful tools for obtaining information that can lead to the discovery of victims’ bodies or to the arrest of other suspects.

Over the past decade, just 29 people have made a deal under which they admitted before the Bosnian state court that they were guilty of war crimes.

“I am sorry for all the people who died at my hands and the hands of those that were there with me. I regret it, I will regret it all my life,” Miroslav Anic, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for war crimes in Kiseljak and Vares, told the state court in May 2011.

Sarajevo-based lawyer Fahrija Karkin said that judges like plea bargains because they are cost-efficient.

“The reason is simple… In any war crimes case there are like 100 witnesses. Now if you call 100 witnesses, you have judges, lawyers and other financial expenses,” said Karkin.

“They also get other information, like the locations of mass graves,” he added.

One of the reasons for the lack of plea bargains is the difficulty of coming to an agreement with the Bosnian state prosecution, although prosecutors counter this argument by saying that they are working under legal constraints.

Defense lawyers also blame pressure from suspects’ local communities, because those who admit guilt are often branded traitors.

Dozens of victims’ bodies found

Bosnian prosecution spokesperson Boris Grubesic said that the obligations imposed on defendants as part of the plea deals have helped in other cases.

“In plea agreements, we always demand that the person becomes a witness in future cases. This is good strong evidence in any case, especially in cases against several perpetrators,” Grubesic explained.

After former Bosnian Serb policeman Damir Ivankovic admitted he was guilty of participating in the murders of around 200 civilians at Koricanske Stijene in 1992 and was sentenced to 14 years in prison, information about a mass grave came to light, and the remains of dozens of victims were found buried on Mount Vlasic.

Defence lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic said that defendants often have a vested interest in trying to negotiate a deal because they get a lower sentence, can sometimes can avoid a trial and have the opportunity to express remorse for what they have done.

But despite the advantages, Stojanovic said that state prosecutors take a strict line in negotiations with defendants.

He believes that the kind of indictments that are often raised by the prosecution, charging suspects with being members of a joint criminal enterprise or having command responsibility for crimes, can make the defendants feel they are being wronged by exaggerated allegations, and so they are less likely to admit guilt as part of a plea bargain.

“That is why defendants ask themselves, why am I being charged?” he said.

Stojanovic also claimed that prosecutors make plea-bargain proposals to show they are trying to reach agreements rather than in the hope of achieving any positive outcome, without offering any benefits to the defendants in return for admitting their guilt.

‘The truth must come out’

Plea deals also require the approval of victims’ associations.

Jasmin Meskovic, the head of the Association of Former Camp Detainees, told BIRN that he is willing to accept minimal punishments for war crimes as long as the perpetrators give information about mass graves and about those who ordered the commission of atrocities.

“We hope that each plea agreement, and each verdict which comes as a result, will help the truth to come out, to prove who committed crimes, who are the victims, where are the mass graves. That’s something we will always support,” said Meskovic.

“Only if we get those things can we agree to a minimal punishment,” he added.

He said that another good thing about plea deals is that they ensure that victims don’t have to be traumatised again by testifying.

Defendants who cut deals generally get lower sentences.

Damir Ivankovic, Gordan Djuric and Ljubisa Cetic all signed plea agreements and all got sentences lower than 15 years for the mass killings of Bosniaks at Koricanske Stijene in 1992, while the other defendants in the case - Zoran Babic, Milorad Skrbic and Dusan Jankovic- were jailed for more than 20 years.

In some cases however, the Bosnian court has rejected plea deals that have been approved by both the prosecution and defence.

The state court rejected an agreement between former Bosnian Serb policeman Sasa Zecevic and the prosecution because the judges believed that the proposed punishment was not severe enough.

Zecevic was eventually convicted of involvement in Koricanske Stijene massacre and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

After this, the Bosnian prosecution also withdrew another deal it had prepared with Radoslav Knezevic, another former policeman who was also accused of involvement in the same killings, which would have seen him serving between 12 and 15 years in jail. He was also given a 23-year sentence.

Sarajevo lawyer Karkin argued that an additional reason for plea deals being relatively rare is the increased bureaucratic control over prosecutorial work.

“Everything must be sent to the chief prosecutor or the team around the chief prosecutor which must also sign it off. I think this hinders the work of prosecutors,” Karkin explained.

Grubesic declined to comment on this, saying that everything was done according to the law.

He said that there were indications that a few more plea deals might be agreed soon, but would not name specific cases.

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