Feature 20 Apr 17

Serbia Shortlists Chief War Crimes Prosecutor Candidates

After almost one and a half years without a chief war crimes prosecutor, the Serbian government has proposed two candidates - with major challenges ahead as Belgrade remains under pressure to step up prosecutions.

Marija Ristic BIRN
Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor in Belgrade. Photo: BETA.

At a government session on Thursday, prosecutors Snezana Stanojkovic and Milan Petrovic were proposed as candidates to lead the Office of the War Crime Prosecutor, established in 2003 to prosecute crimes that were committed during the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia.

The government’s proposal will be sent to the parliament for the final vote, the date of which has yet to be set.

Petrovic is currently acting head of the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, while Stanojkovic works in the same office as a prosecutor.

The State Prosecutorial Council, the body in charge of pre-selecting prosecutors, sent a list of three candidates - Stanojkovic, Petrovic and Dejan Terzic - to the government in October, but no decision was made for six months, leaving the vital institution in limbo.

Serbia has been without a chief war crimes prosecutor since December 2015, sparking criticism from independent bodies, human rights organisations and the European Union in its annual progress report.

According to observers, this has further damaged the already fragile institution, which has been suffering from a lack of support and resources, as well as being subjected to political pressure over the last couple of years.

The number of war crimes prosecutions has been the lowest for years - in 2014, only four indictments were issued, in 2015, there were no indictments, while in 2016 eight were issued; one was the first ever Serbian case for war crimes in Srebrenica, but the others mostly small-scale crimes with one defendant.

This month the prosecution issued two new indictments related to the Bosnian war - one for the murder of Bosniaks in town of Strpci and for the killings in Sanski Most.

No indictment for war crimes in Kosovo has been issued for three years.

Prosecutors have also failed for the first time to attend regional meetings with their colleagues from other former Yugoslav states aimed at boosting cross-border cooperation, which is crucial to ensure prosecutions of suspects living in other countries.

Pressure and threats

Hague Tribunal prosecutor Serge Brammertz (far left) and Vladimir Vukcevic (first from left) in Belgrade in 2010. Photo: BETA.

Vladimir Vukcevic, the former and so far Serbia’s only chief war crimes prosecutor, ran the office since it was established in 2003 until 2015.

But many claimed that his office was never truly independent and prosecuted suspected criminals according to the government’s agenda.

Vukcevic’s critics also accused him of lacking the courage to prosecute Serbs - or claimed that what he damaged the national interest by only convicting Serbs.

Tabloid newspapers also often targeted the chief prosecutor and his advisers as ‘traitors’ who were taking orders from foreign embassies.

After some of these front-page accusations, people working in the prosecution received threats, some of which targeted their families, while the chief prosecutor was even guarded by the police for some periods.

The threats increased in 2014 after several politicians, mainly from Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s ruling Progressive Party, publicly accused the prosecution of working for foreigners.

Since it started working in 2003, the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office has secured the convictions of 73 people in 45 cases. At the moment, there are 19 war crimes cases ongoing before Higher and Appeals Courts in Belgrade, while 14 further cases are in the investigation phase.

No army or police general has ever been indicted. According to an OSCE report published last year, none of the defendants prosecuted in Serbia so far held “high-ranking positions at the time of the offences”, while only ten per cent of them were medium-ranking.

The report also said that most of the 27 cases focus on more minor incidents - 40 per cent of the cases involve three victims, while four cases involve killings of 100 people or more, and another four involve the killing of 50 or more.

Major challenges ahead

Whichever prosecutor is chosen for the post already has a full agenda ahead.

In the national strategy for war crimes prosecution that was adopted in February 2016, the government made significant pledges to improve its record.

The prosecution office has also been urged to adopt its own investigation strategy, and has already missed the deadline set by the EU as part of Serbia’s accession negotiations.

Serbia’s further progress in the EU negotiations, especially within Chapter 23, the section that covers the rule of law, will be partly assessed on the basis of how successful the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office will be in dealing with violations committed during the 1990s wars.

Serbia will also have EU member Croatia exerting pressure, as Zagreb is still threatening to block Belgrade’s progress in the EU talks if it does not change a law that gives it universal jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. Zagreb fears this will be used to target Croats.

At home, the new prosecutor needs to deal with a number of complex cases, like the one for crimes committed in Srebrenica, which defence lawyers have already claimed is based on poor evidence.

It also needs to finally launch several new cases - prosecutions for the murders of three Albanian-Americans after the Kosovo war, and for the killings of 300 Albanian civilians in the village of Meja in Kosovo during the 1999 conflict.

More importantly, it needs to secure genuine support from the government so it can get the personnel and resources that it needs to do its job.

The new chief prosecutor’s actions will be closely scrutinised by Brussels, but in order to fulfill the EU’s demands, serious domestic challenges will have to be overcome first, observers believe.

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