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23 October 2015
Analysis

Huge War Crimes Case Backlog Overwhelms Bosnia

Marija Tausan BIRN BiH Sarajevo

Bosnia and Herzegovina will fail to resolve the most sensitive war crimes cases by its December 2015 deadline and may not tackle the thousands of remaining cases by the final deadline of 2023.

Since Bosnia adopted its State Strategy for War Crimes in December 2008, 30 per cent of cases have been resolved.

But it has become clear that the deadline of December 2015 for resolving the most sensitive cases, which was set by the strategy, will definitely not be met.

A total of 750 people have been charged and proceedings against more than 2,110 others have been suspended in the seven years since the strategy was adopted.

But investigations into alleged war crimes by at least 7,000 more people remain to be resolved by December 2023.

Along with issues such as a relatively small number of prosecutors – 40 in the state-level prosecution – the complexity of the investigations, and the fact that some of the suspects have fled to neighbouring countries and some witnesses have passed away, Bosnia is also facing the issue of a lack of political support to prosecute high-level perpetrators and an apparent lack of will among prosecutors to indict.

During a recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Serge Brammertz, told BIRN that the country’s judiciary appears to have insufficient dedication to prosecute war crimes cases in accordance with the national war crimes strategy.

“I have to say with all due respect to my prosecutor colleagues that I was not always convinced all of them had the commitment to move war crime cases forward,” he said.

Speeding up the process

If all the remaining cases are to be resolved within eight years, the process clearly needs to be speeded up.

It is envisaged in the strategy that the most complex cases should be processed by the state prosecution and the less complex cases by cantonal and district prosecutions.

The supervisory body for monitoring the implementation of the strategy has also emphasised that the priority of the state prosecution is to process the most complex cases, and that it is necessary to boost the process of transferring less complex ones to entity-level judiciaries.

But the state prosecution has meanwhile been accused of spending its limited resources on cases that should be transferred.

The Bosnian Justice Ministry told BIRN that despite all the prosecution’s staff and resources, it has not achieved satisfactory results.

The ministry said that the prosecution is wasting time on cases that, at a later stage, are transferred to the entities’ judiciaries. In addition, in many cases complex investigations were split into several smaller cases.

“This practice consumes the human and material resources of the state prosecution on prosecuting cases which, by their nature, should be referred to the entities’ judiciary in the investigation phase, but also the resources of the state court which conducts separate procedures for one event, instead of speeding up the process,” the ministry said.

The state prosecution announced two weeks ago that it has charged 509 people with war crimes over the past ten years, 235 of whom were indicted in the last two-and-a-half years.

Hague Tribunal prosecutor Brammertz believes that this is a significant achievement but that the numbers didn’t tell the whole story.

“Figures are only one part of the equation, and it does not say anything about the quality, seriousness, gravity and criteria used in the selection of those cases,” Brammertz said.

“There are different problems in the transfer of cases… I have heard from entity prosecutors that some cases transferred to them were only partial cases and minor ones… also, there are many important and big cases that are in the media every time an anniversary comes round, so those cases need to receive the highest priority because they provoke tension and cast a negative light on the prosecution,” he added.

He said that it was clear that the deadlines envisaged by the state strategy will not be met and that it is now necessary to prioritise the complex cases.

Choosing the easy cases

A disciplinary procedure was recently launched against a former prosecutor from the state prosecution, Munib Halilovic, for not processing one war crimes case.

Speaking in his own defence, Halilovic admitted that he did not work on the case, but only because it was classified as a less complex case under the Bosnian war crimes processing strategy, which obliges prosecutors to prioritize complex and sensitive cases.

Halilovic suggested that the disciplinary prosecutor file charges against prosecutors who intentionally pick easier cases to fill the annual quotas.

“A large number of prosecutors in the state prosecution are doing just that. There are prosecutors there who never raised the indictments in a case which belongs to the most complex categories,” Halilovic told the disciplinary committee of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“That is a job for the disciplinary prosecutor, to ask himself why some are allowed to choose the easiest cases,” he said.

The Justice Ministry said that a number of steps that should be taken so that the most complex and highest priority cases can be processed more quickly.

“It is necessary to review the criteria for the classification of complex and less complex cases, eliminate the conduction of parallel investigations at the state and entity levels, as well as to comprehensively resolve the question of which instance deals with which cases,” said ministry spokesperson Marina Bakic.

But the ministry believes that all war crimes cases can be resolved by the end of 2023 with the financial help of the European Union, which will ensure the hiring of additional staff for the judiciary.

“The fulfilment of this objective from the strategy should be expected due to assistance provided by the EU through the extraordinary IPA [Instrument for Pre-Accession] budget support for war crimes case processing project, the aim of which is to reduce the number of war crimes cases in the prosecutions by 50 per cent in a period of five years. Results in line with the working plan are already showing,” said Bakic.

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