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25 September 2007

BiH Justice Minister Announces War Crimes Reform

Erna Mackic BIRN BiH
In an interview with Justice Report, Barisa Colak reveals plans for further rule of law reforms and war crimes trials strategy.
The Minister of Justice of Bosnia and Herzegovina has expressed concern over the current situation in the country's judicial sector, and announced the continuation of stalled reforms of the rule of law.

In an interview with BIRN's Justice Report, Barisa Colak, Minister of Justice of BiH, said that the initial phase of the judicial reform, which started in 2003, was good, but added that it is necessary to "continue developing a contemporary and unified judicial system in the entire country".

With this in mind, he announced that the country's institutions will work on preparation of a strategy for further rule of law reform.

The strategy, according to Colak, should be completed before the end of this year and would comprise a plan to tackle numerous war crimes cases related to the 1992-95 conflict that ravaged the country.

"We must tackle some issues that are of particular importance in order to build a more effective, if not more responsible, and more professional judicial system," Colak told Justice Report.

Most of the judicial reforms in the country happened in the new millennium with the passage of a number of laws on state level, including the Criminal Code of BiH and the Criminal Procedure Code of BiH, but also the establishment of the state level court and prosecutor's office. In addition, the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) has been established which appoints and dismisses judges and prosecutors and regulates the work of judicial institutions.

Although the implemented reforms are voluminous, they have proven to be insufficient. Judges, prosecutors and many legal experts frequently point to deficiencies in the system and to the need for new changes, which would lead to modernisation of this sector and fulfillment of one of the conditions of joining the European Union.

Commenting on the work that has been done so far in the field of judicial reform, the justice minister said that "certain steps have been made" but added that Bosnia "would not need the new strategy if we managed to completely reform the judicial system and achieve the European standards".

The priority areas of the judicial reform include the establishment of an efficient organisational structure and the harmonisation of the local regulations with the EU ones. Colak said that draft strategy proposal will be published on October 1 and that citizens will be given an opportunity to comment on it.

With 13,000 potential war crimes suspects still to be dealt with, Colak considers war crimes trials a very important issue which needs to be further regulated.

"Those who have committed war crimes must be tried. This will bring satisfaction for the victims, but it will also bring progress to the entire society. In order for this to happen, we need to amend the legislation," he said.

With such a high potential caseload, Colak said that case classification must be performed beforehand. "According to some indicators, there are criminal reports which affect entire military formations that existed during the war."

"It is impossible to process all of them simultaneously," Colak said but added that even if some cases do not make indictment now "if we find evidence tomorrow, a procedure can be initiated. It is important that these cases are processed."

The justice ministry has taken the initiative for the creation of a state-wide war crimes processing strategy. This strategy should recommend solutions and determine the role of all structures dealing with war crime issues in Bosnia.

Colak says that, considering the large number of potential suspects, it will take decades to complete the entire process which reiterates the need to "define and suggest certain solutions by all structures, be they within or outside the judicial system".

In order to accelerate the processing of war crime cases "the capacity of judicial staff needs to be developed, financial resources secured and institutions able to handle such cases need to be strengthened".

Colak says that the strategy should be completed by mid-December. The document should provide "answers to many questions, including how much the country will have to pay for this and how we should plan the activities in order to complete this task".

Apart from the large number of war crime suspects, another issue facing the judicial system is the lack of a state prison where criminals would serve their sentence. Currently, convicts sentenced before the Court of BiH must serve their sentences in entity prisons.

Only two of these - one in Zenica in the Federation and the other in Foca in Republika Srpska - are maximum security institutions.

In the past couple of years, a location for a new state prison has been secured in eastern Sarajevo and the initial phase of building has commenced.

"So far, 1.2 million convertible marks (600,000 euro) have been spent and we have two million more available until the end of the year," Colak said. But this is not nearly enough to complete the project.

"Estimates indicate that the building shall cost 14.5 million euro," Colak confirmed.

Asked if it will be possible to mobilise the required resources, Colak said "there are certain pledges for financial support from the Dutch government and the European Commission."

The minister says that there are also some indications that the World Bank might approve credit "under extremely opportune conditions, with a grace period of ten years and a favourable interest rate".

"We shall see if any other countries, which have diplomatic or consular offices in BiH, will want to support the construction of the prison. In summer this year I sent a letter to around 25 different institutions asking for help. We shall see what the reactions will be," Colak has said.

He added that "the state prison can be built up in two years" if the country manages to secure the necessary resources.

While the work on the construction of the prison continue, 30 war crime indictees detained in Kula prison in Eastern Sarajevo are on hunger strike. They started the strike earlier this month in protest at the application of the Criminal Code of BiH in their war crimes trials. They demand that the Criminal Code of former Yugoslavia be applied instead, as this code was in force at the time the crimes were committed.

"We are facing an extremely difficult and serious problem. A mistake was made at the very beginning when we started applying different regulations," Colak said. "Believe me, if I had a magic wand, this would be the first issue I would like to resolve."

Five different criminal codes are applied at the moment on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Even if we harmonised application of laws now, we cannot annul what has already been done.
The only action I can suggest, in my capacity as justice minister, is to make amendments to the laws, but that is a process which lasts," says Colak.

One of the problems facing the judicial system in BiH is unavailability of some war crime suspects. This is usually caused by the fact that they have dual citizenship of one of Bosnia's neighbouring countries – Serbia and Croatia most often. The current laws in those countries do not foresee the possibility of extradition, despite the existing indictment.

In order to solve the issue of dual citizenships, a few months ago Serbia and Croatia signed an agreement establishing that the indictees are to be tried in the country in which they were arrested. Therefore, the first steps have been made in the region. However, Bosnia refused to sign this agreement.

Asked if Bosnia might change its mind, Colak said that he "believed it will not be signed any time soon", but added that "the agreement on the exchange of evidence will be implemented in practice, as this would facilitate the work of the courts and prosecutions in these countries".

"In Bosnia and Herzegovina, war crimes are a particularly sensitive issue. I think that we need to persist on signing the agreements with our neighbouring states and move on within the limits acceptable in our society," Colak said.

"If we cannot reach an ideal solution immediately, we should at least start somewhere and build trust in our judicial system, but also build trust in the systems of the neighbouring countries. Otherwise, we shall keep the status quo, which will slow down delivery of justice to the victims and reconciliation of the society," Colak concluded.

Erna Mackic is a reporter with BIRN's Justice Report. [email protected] Justice Report is internet publication of BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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