Interview 18 Dec 17

Hague Prosecutor: Balkan States Still Celebrating Criminals

Reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia will be hard to achieve while war criminals are still treated as heroes, the chief prosecutor at the Hague Tribunal, Serge Brammertz, told BIRN ahead of its closure this month.

Ivan Angelovski BIRN Washington DC
Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Serge Brammertz, the last chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, which will close this month after 24 years, told BIRN that the UN court achieved credible results, but reconciliation has not been because there is “no true will in the region to accept the wrongdoings”.

“We have seen the reactions now in Croatia after the Prljic et al. judgment, and elsewhere, a lot of events in honour of so-called heroes and very little recognition of the crimes they have been convicted for,” Brammertz said, speaking in Washington DC after taking part in a debate about the legacy of the ICTY at the US Congress. 

“I find it extremely unfortunate that... war criminals are getting all this attention,” he added.

Several thousand people, including two Croatian ministers, attended a ceremony in Zagreb last week commemorating wartime Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak, who killed himself at the Hague Tribunal after being convicted alongside former Bosnian Croat political leader Jadranko Prljic and four others.

There have also been a series of attempts to stir up public support for Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military chief who was convicted by the Hague court in November. In one incident, posters praising Mladic were pasted on walls in Belgrade.

“We’ve seen in the past days in reactions by some politicians in Croatia, we’ve seen it in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska where Mladic is mentioned as being a hero despite getting a life sentence for massive crimes. And we’ve seen in Serbia that there have been very little activity on war crimes cases recently,” Brammertz pointed out.

He also noted how former Yugoslav Army officer Vladimir Lazarevic, who served a sentence for war crimes in Kosovo, was appointed to teach cadets at the Serbian Military Academy.

“How do you want investigators, prosecutors doing a good job in prosecuting war criminals if you see the leadership receiving, with all the honours, convicted war criminals? It can only have a negative impact,” he insisted.

‘Biased court’ allegations

Croatian MPs hold a minute's silence for Slobodan Praljak. Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/Lana SLIVAR DOMINIC/DS.

Following the verdicts in the cases against Mladic and the six Bosnian Croats, some government officials in the region defended their actions.

Some also used the opportunity to repeat the narrative that has been shadowed the ICTY since it was established, that is that it is a biased and political court.

The most recent to voice such an opinion was Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who said the ICTY is particularly biased against Serbs, because two-thirds of the people it convicted were of Serb ethnicity.

“I met [Brnabic] when I was last month in Belgrade. We had a good discussion on those issues and we agreed to disagree in that regard,” Brammertz said.

“It is a reality that the majority of individuals which have been prosecuted at the Tribunal are from the Serbian ethnicity, but it’s also very much reflecting the reality of the conflict where Serbs have been involved in Croatia, in Kosovo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We’re not saying that cases are reflecting statistically the number of crimes which have been committed, but we have prosecuted those that have greatest responsibility and I think it’s very much reflected in our cases,” he added.

Since it was established in 1993 by the UN, the ICTY has indicted 161 people, of whom 90 were sentenced and 19 acquitted.

In the cases against the other 37 people, the proceedings were either terminated or the indictments were withdrawn.

A handful of cases that remain from the ICTY were transferred to the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, which will continue the work of the UN tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

One of the cases heard last week was the prosecution’s appeal against the acquittal of Vojislav Seselj, the Serbian nationalist politician who was accused of wartime crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

Seselj, who is living in Serbia after he was temporarily released by the ICTY for cancer treatment and then refused to go back to The Hague, has consistently mocked the UN court since he returned to Belgrade.

He claimed that he took absolutely no notice of last week’s appeal. “I was asleep at the time,” he insisted.

“We’re used to [Seselj] having reactions which are not necessarily the ones we are expecting,” Brammertz said.

‘Victims still want justice’

Srebrenica survivors celebrate as Ratko Mladic is sentenced to life in prison. Photo: Amel Emric/Beta/AP.

Although the ICTY is closing its doors, Brammertz believes that many more victims of the Yugoslav wars are still seeking justice.

He said that the ICTY is not closing because justice has been fully done, but because the UN Security Council decided to shift responsibilities from the Hague court to domestic judiciaries in former Yugoslav states.

Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo have established local specialist chambers dealing with war crimes prosecution, but these offices have been hampered by lack of resources and political influence over the judiciary.

Most of the countries have signed protocols for cooperation and liaison officers who work with the ICTY over the transfer of evidence, but extradition and the exchange of evidence between local prosecutors still remains a challenge.

Given the political climate in the region, Brammertz said he is not sure what will happen with all these domestic cases, but believes that “there’s no alternative”.

“I’m now dealing with the region for the last ten years. I’ve met a lot of courageous and motivated prosecutors and I hope that political support for their work will increase in the future,” he urged.

“If not, there will be a big, big problem. Without accountability, the region will not be able to move forward.”

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