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9 September 2011

Becoming Familiar with Protected Witnesses

Selma Ucanbarlic BIRN BiH Sarajevo
Witnesses who are granted protection measures and appear at war crime trials before the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, say that their identity is often uncovered, forcing them into a life of fear because of threats and pressure.

A protected witness who earlier testified before the State Court at the trial of Boban Simsic (who was sentenced for war crimes in Visegrad), says that after her identity was disclosed, the indictee's brother offered her money to alter her statement.  

In addition to being offered money, victims claim that after their identity is disclosed, they are subjected to threats, which in most cases come from the relatives of war crimes indictees.

The Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina points out that the disclosure of the identity of a witness does not happen often, because this act is considered a crime and can lead to a prison sentence. On the
other hand, representatives of defence teams consider that "the principle of the protected witnesses is a novelty and some people find it difficult to get used to".  

Because of the instances of identity disclosure, other witnesses who are due to testify at war crimes trials lack confidence in the judicial institutions and authorities and may refuse to appear in court.  

Experts suggest that witnesses should get more support from social institutions in their local communities and those who disclose the identity of protected witnesses should be sanctioned as a way of preventing such cases in the future.

One trial for the disclosure of the identity of a protected witness is currently underway before the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The trial is being held against a journalist and editor of the "Bum" weekly magazine.  

Offering money

In most cases witnesses ask for protection measures because of shame for the ordeal that they went through or out of fear of the criminal perpetrators, because they often live close to them.

The existing legal regulations stipulate that courts may grant protection measures to witnesses testifying at war crimes trials. Some of the measures include the exclusion of the public during the course of their testimony,the protection of their personal data, giving a statement behind curtains or via a video link with voice alteration technology being applied.

According to the law, a court may decide that a witness's personal data shall remain confidential within a certain timeframe, but not for longer than 30 years after the pronouncement of the second instance verdict.

Despite the strict legal provisions, the identity of protected witnesses is sometimes revealed during the course of their examination at the trial either by defence teams or even by a prosecutor representing the indictment.

"I do not know when my identity was revealed, but defence attorneys of the people standing trial know more about myself than I do. You cannot say that any of the witnesses are protected... I have no confidence in anything," says a former protected witness, who testified at the trial of Boban Simsic before the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In August 2007 Simsic was sentenced under a second instance verdict to 14 years in prison for a crime committed in Visegrad in 1992.  

The witness says that, following the disclosure of her identity, Boban Simsic's brother "offered me money to say good things about the indictee before the court". Although she refused the offer, the witness says that she still lives in fear.

"Who can guarantee that members of the indictee's family will not come to my door. They used to go to school with me. I do not go anywhere any more. My husband drives me to work. We visit our home town only once a year," the protected witness said.  

No one has been brought to justice for disclosing the identity of this protected witness, while other witnesses say that defence teams or even indictees themselves often disclose their personal data.  

Besides the defence, the prosecutors representing the cases contribute to the disclosure of the protected witnesses' identity in some instances. It happens that the Prosecution announces the names of witnesses who will be examined at the subsequent hearing. Yet when the witness arrives, they may ask the Court to grant protection measures, even though all the people already present in the courtroom know who the witness is.  

"During hearings, the trial chamber chairman warns the people attending the trial not to reveal the witness's identity, but that is all. When the identity of a witness is disclosed, the victim receives threats from the indictee's relatives. Attempts are also made to bribe the witness," says Bakira Hasecic, President of the "Women - Victims of War" Association.

Dusko Tomic, a defence attorney in war crimes cases, says that "the principle of the protected witnesses is a novelty and some people find it hard to get used to it".  

"While examining a protected witness, the Defence sometimes asks delicate questions that can help uncover the identity of the witness. Therefore, at the end of the testimony or in case the witness testifies for the Defence, the witness identifies himself and waives his hidden identity," Tomic says.  

Despite the new principle of protected witnesses, victims say that they are afraid of revenge because some of them still live very close to the perpetrators of the crime.

"Victims are afraid of revenge and recall the threats the perpetrators made while committing the crimes, like: 'If you tell anyone, I shall kill all the members of your family'. Victims are afraid for their family members..." Hasecic said.  

What they should say

In May this year the Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina filed a motion with the Court asking it to order custody for Miralem Macic, who is awaiting his trial for crimes in the Konjic area in 1992 to begin. The
State Prosecution said that alleged threats that warned witnesses on what to say at the trial, were among the reasons for filing the custody motion against him.  

"The Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina examined protected witness S1, who said that Miralem Macic visited him and told him that he thought that witness S2 had initiated this proceeding, adding that he had gone to his café with an automatic gun the night before. S1 claimed that Macic said that he wanted to go inside the café and kill S2 and all the other people who were there..." said State Prosecutor Sanja Jukic at a hearing held in May this year.  

Victims deem that the protection measures ordered by the court are useless, adding that they do not feel safe.  

"In fact nobody takes care of us. The court needs us only while we testify. As soon as we leave the court, nobody takes care of us," Hasecic says.  

Witnesses ask the court to grant them protection measures not only because they are afraid of the indictees against whom they testify, but because they also feel ashamed in front of their family members.  

"When the identity of a witness is disclosed, the person feels completely naked. Consequently, he or she feels ashamed. At the same time, those individuals are afraid that their children or grandchildren will be condemned by the public," said Fatima Becirovic, Coordinator of the Psychological-Social Programme
with the Centre for Therapy and Rehabilitation, entitled "Vive zene", in Tuzla.

Becirovic maintained that, while giving their statements, witnesses have to relive the past events once again. They see images and feel emotions of fear for their own lives.

"Many witnesses feel pain in their body parts and the suffering they survived. They can recall scents and remember other things that have been stored in their bodies, be it at the physical, emotional or mental level,"Becirevic said, adding that they also experienced a high level of anxiety, the fear of consequences, fear for their lives and so on.

In view of this, Becirovic asserts that witnesses need support from their communities. By law, witnesses under threat and vulnerable witnesses have the right to get legal aid and support from social care institutions.  

"Witnesses need support from prosecutors and psychological support prior, during and after their testimonies. The local community can be there for victims," Becirovic says, adding that, in general, a supportive approach to victims is needed.

Selma Učanbarlić is a BIRN – Justice Report journalist. [email protected] Justice Report is an online BIRN weekly publication.
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