Analysis 17 Jan 13

Bosnia Tries to Speed Up War Crimes Prosecutions

Four years since Bosnia adopted a war-crimes strategy, hopes are growing that perpetrators might be brought to justice more quickly.

Denis Dzidic
President of the Bosnian High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council Milorad Novkovic/Photo by BIRN

By creating a centralised database of investigations, indictments and verdicts for war crimes and by sharing unfinished war crime investigations between all of Bosnia’s prosecutors’ offices, work on implementing the country's war crimes strategy got faster over the past year.

Judicial institutions admit that previously their work was too slow and laboured, but they now hope the process will become easier.

By sharing out the remaining war crime cases – so that only complex cases remain at state level while all others go to entity and Brcko District courts – it should be possible to accelerate matters.

There is also hope that with the naming of a new chief prosecutor, a more systematic approach will follow and war crimes will become more of a priority.

Major EU investments in the courts planned for this year, and the possibility that a new appeal court will be formed, also suggest that the entire process can accelerate.

On the other hand, the annual report from the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council to Bosnia's state parliament was met with many objections, many of them related to the pace of war crime prosecutions.

The chairman of parliament's constitutional committee said it was inexcusable that war crimes strategy deadlines were constantly missed.

Bosnia’s council of ministers adopted the war crimes strategy in December 2008. This foresaw the creation of a centralised database for all open war crimes cases within 30 days and their distribution among prosecutors’ offices.

Complex cases were to remain at state level and wrap up within seven years, while all others were to be distributed to other prosecutors and be completed within 15 years.

But the strategy has so far failed to make much impact, as the figures demonstrate.

In the three years before it was adopted, Bosnia’s state court issued 21 verdicts on war crimes, while in the four years that followed, it issued approximately 40 verdicts.  The situation regarding the number of indictments is similar.

During the course of 2012, the same number of indictments for war crimes was raised as in 2007 - and six less than 2008, the year when the strategy was adopted.

Various demands envisioned by the strategy have also not been met to date as deadlines have come and gone. Funds to improve the work of courts, prosecutions and police agencies in war crimes cases, based on recommendations from the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, HJPC, have yet to be raised, for example.

Stalemate comes to an end

On the other hand, the state court said that in 2012 it completed a centralised database of indictments and verdicts in all courts in the country, and that the process of determining the complexity and distribution of war crime investigations was also close to being finished.

“The best indication of progress is the fact that since the strategy was adopted, courts in the entities and Brcko district received 282 cases, 210 of which were in the last year alone,” Meddzida Kreso, the President of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said.

According to the HJPC, in  Republika Srpska, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Brcko District, more than 600 investigations are ongoing and another 658 are ongoing at state level.

Bosnia’s justice minister, Barisa Colak, and the HJPC president, Milorad Novkovic, told BIRN that they were content with the practice and pace of delegating less “complex” cases to the entity and Brcko courts, which they say has cut the burden on state-level institutions and allowed for a faster resolution of cases.

“Distributing cases is the only way to implement the [war crimes] strategy, because the state court and prosecution cannot prosecute all the cases,” Novkovic said.

His view is shared by the EU delegation to Bosnia, which monitors the strategy's implementation supervisory board. Andy McGuffie, spokesperson for the delegation, said he was happy with the results last year.

“The acceleration in redistributing the backlog after almost three years of stalemate has contributed to a faster identification of needs across the country in terms of resources necessary to the proper tackling of the investigation and resolution of cases,” he said.

“For this reason, I expect even more tangible results in future.”

More prosecutions mean more prosecutors

McGuffie noted that the EU foresees investing around 45 million euro in the Bosnian judiciary next year, 14 million of which will be spent on war crimes.

News of EU funds to improve capacities has been welcomed by the state court and prosecution, as well as by the HJPC, which wants an increase in the number of prosecutors and investigators dealing with war crimes.

Boris Grubesic, spokesperson of the State Prosecution, said that all prosecutors’ offices need more lawyers.

“The cases in the state prosecutor’s office are the most complex cases dealing with grave violations of international humanitarian law, and require more resources. This is why we expect increased capacities in prosecutors and investigators,” Grubesic said.

The same opinion was expressed by Meddzida Kreso, president of the state court.

“Each increase in the caseload and intensified prosecution of war crimes demands an increase of court resources,” Kreso told BIRN.

President of the Bosnian State Court Meddzida Kreso and judges/Photo by BIRN

“A problem may arise if there is no willingness to answer these demands. I would say the more burning problem of capacities is evident inside prosecutions, where there aren’t enough people to work on investigations,” she added.

The Bosnian justice ministry last year proposed the formation of an appeals court, which, according to the state court's president and international monitors will not affect war crime prosecutions.

However, Kreso has also stated that the draft legislation for the formation of the appeals court contains regulations that reduce the capacities and jurisdiction of the state court, which she says could negatively affect the implementation of the war crimes strategy.

“Adopting this law will not only adversely affect the implementation of the Strategy but the entire work of the [state court],” she said.

The draft law no longer contains any provisions giving the state court jurisdiction to give directions on proper applications of criminal codes in genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes cases.

Victims fear that time is running out

Meanwhile, despite certain progress, there are many critics of the work of judicial institutions on war crimes.

Bosnia's constitutional committee has proposed that the HJPC be ordered to submit a report on judicial reform in the country.

“We need to take a clear position on the state of the Bosnian judiciary, as there is a lot of unhappiness, since previous reports have revealed significant problems,” said head of the committee, Krstan Simic.

According to Simic, one of the biggest problems is the war crimes strategy, which, according to him, is not being implemented with the energy that it deserves.

Like Simic, victims' representatives are also unhappy with the tempo with which war crimes cases are being resolved.

Few indictments were raised in 2012, they note, adding that only three years remain to deal with the most complex cases, according to the strategy's deadlines.

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