Jezik / Language:
16 March 2006

Republika Srpska ready to punish war crimes

War crimes trials in Bosnia’s smaller entity are on increase, mainly due to the establishment of the state War Crimes Chamber, but their success depends on the support of local and foreign institutions.
More than ten years after the war in Bosnia ended, the Republika Srpska, RS, is showing signs of willingness to prosecute war crimes, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, HRW.

The creation of the War Crimes Chamber, a state judicial body dedicated to processing outstanding war crimes trials, has had a positive effect on entity courts insofar as they can no longer ignore the issue.

But the success of Bosnia’s smaller entity courts depends on the support of local and foreign institutions, the report says.

“A Chance for Justice? – War Crimes Trials in the Republika Srpska” analyses the situation in the RS judicial bodies in connection with the processing of war crimes and arrives at the conclusion that “the number of criminally prosecuted cases increased” in this entity at the end of 2005.

Nevertheless, in order for this positive practice to continue, a number of obstacles that stand in the way of fair trials need to be eliminated.

Despite the fact that most of the war crimes suspects in Bosnia are Serbs living in the Republika Srpska, only two trials were completed by November 2005. At the same time, over fifty cases were completed in the Federation, and in over twelve of these cases the convicted persons were either Bosniaks or Croats.

The Republika Srpska has five district courts spread across its territory.

At the end of last year and at the beginning of 2006 the criminal prosecution of cases increased in two of these five courts. The court in Banja Luka handed down a sentence in a case against four Serbs and the court in Trebinje convicted one person for war crimes.

At the beginning of February these two courts started new war crimes trials, with Serbs as suspects in both cases.

According to HRW, several investigations in the RS are also soon to be completed.

“This increase in the number of trials shows that the will to take war crimes suspects to court is growing in the Republika Srpska,” the latest report suggests.

HRW concludes that the predominant factor in bringing about this change was the opening last year of the specialist state war crimes court. “The establishment of the War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo significantly increased the number of war crimes trials that can be held before RS courts,’ says the report.

Within its strategy for the prosecution of war crimes, in 2005 the BH Prosecution reviewed all war crimes investigations conducted so far.

The War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo will take over the most serious crimes, while a large number of cases will be prosecuted in the RS and the Federation.

The state prosecutor last year referred over 40 cases to the prosecutor’s offices in the RS, and it is possible that another 40 will be referred, writes HRW.

Still, the local courts will be unable to guarantee efficient and fair criminal proceedings against these persons if a number of obstacles are not eliminated.

These obstacles, writes HRW, include a lack of staff and humanitarian law experts, and the fact that the mandate of the prosecution is not focused solely on war crimes but on a wide range of cases.
Further hindrance comes from the limited degree of assistance that the RS police are ready to provide in these trials, which results in failure to collect evidence, threats to the safety of witnesses and a lack of access to suspects.

HRW finds that the ongoing police investigations mainly focus on crimes committed against Serbs, reflecting the different weight that the police give to cases depending on the nationality of the victims in question.

Illustrating this with an example, HRW says that members of the prosecution in Doboj and Eastern Sarajevo were not aware of evidence collected by the local police relating to crimes committed against non-Serbs. The situation was no different in Gacko, a place where many crimes have been committed.

To a large extent, trials are also dependent on witnesses having the confidence to give testimony without fear of retaliation. Despite the fact that the RS has adopted witness protection legislation, the authorities have not established any kind of a witness protection programme.

A prosecutor confessed to HRW, “I wouldn’t know how to implement any of the provisions of the witness protection law.”

Having in mind all these facts, HRW recommends providing instructions to the local police on cooperation with the prosecutors’ offices in war crimes investigations and the developing of a witness protection programme.

“The very minimum that should be ensured by the programme is the possibility of the witnesses’ transfer to a place other than that of their residence; protection of their families; police escort; protection of the witnesses’ homes and protection of the witnesses’ personal information.

The centre for the training of judges and prosecutors should initiate regular training courses for handling situations involving highly threatened witnesses and their protection,” HRW recommends.
The RS government, it is suggested, should also increase the budget available to the interior ministry for investigations of war crimes committed in the entity against non-Serbs.

HRW also recommends “the introduction of professional investigators in prosecutors’ offices at the local level, and the increasing of the number of prosecutors where needed because of the increased number of investigations.”

The prosecution of war crimes is still of great importance to the victims and their families. Those who will face justice in local courts in the RS are the direct perpetrators, those who pulled the trigger.

For many victims, prosecuting the direct perpetrators is as equally important, if not even more important than punishing those who ordered the crimes, HRW argues.

As a result, the report recommends that international donor institutions recognise the important role of the lower courts in Bosnia in delivering justice and that they give them support.

Donors should provide financial assistance for the district courts in the RS, including providing computers for all prosecutors and their staff, as well as technology allowing for testimonies via video conference link and equipment for face and voice distortion, concludes HRW.

comments powered by Disqus