Families of the Srebrenica genocide victims say they plan to sue those responsible within the Hague Prosecution for destruction of around a thousand artifacts found in mass graves.
The artifacts were destroyed in 2005, on the tenth anniversary of the execution of over 7,000 people from Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces. While the prosecution justified its actions by saying that the artifacts posed a health risk, due to inadequate storage facilities, the Srebrenica victims’ families are embittered.
Hajra Catic, the President of the Women of Srebrenica association, who lost her husband and son in July 1995, remains deeply disappointed by the “disposal of memorabilia”.
“They destroyed the last memories of our children, brothers, husbands. They were not allowed to do that without consulting families first, but the families learnt about it in the media. We are truly bitter about this,” said Catic.
Identity cards, clothing, wristwatches, small notebooks and necklaces, were among around one thousand items – found in mass graves – which the Hague Prosecution destroyed in 2005.
Frederick Swinnen, special advisor to the chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz, told BIRN that the Hague Prosecution had expressed its sincere regret for destroying the artifacts, and emphasised that it offered its apologies to the families of Srebrenica victims on several occasions.
“The majority of the artifacts were items such as blindfolds, ammunition and blood samples. There were also a small number of fragments and personal items such as clothing and identity cards. Copies of all identifying documents were retained by the Bosnian authorities,” said Swinnen.
A legal team was formed on the initiative of the Women of Srebrenica to identify those who were responsible for destroying the victims’ possessions and to ensure the safe return of the remaining artifacts to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Damir Alic, a member of the legal team, claims that he is considering bringing a lawsuit against those who disposed the artifacts, even if that means suing former Chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who might have signed off on the decision to destroy the items.
“We continue to insist on knowing who gave the order and who actually disposed of the artefacts. We have grounds for filing a private suit, for reporting the action by Carle del Ponte to the Swiss authorities, since that is where she comes from,” said Alic.
Alic added that they could also report Del Ponte to the disciplinary bodies of the United Nations, of which the Hague Prosecution is a part.
On the other hand, Swinnen says that the Hague Prosecution has conducted an internal inquiry regarding the disposal of artifacts which concluded that there was nothing improper about the decision to dispose of the artifacts.
The prosecution service also felt that it was inappropriate to single out individual staff involved in the process, and that the overall responsibility for such decisions rested with the Prosecutor’s Office.
Marko Milanovic, an international law expert, says that bringing a suit against the UN or the Hague Prosecution is not a realistic option.
“It would be exceptionally difficult for the Srebrenica families to achieve anything in court. You can only file this type of suit in a domestic court of a country in order to seek reimbursement. The UN and ICTY have immunity before domestic courts and cannot be sued,” said Milanovic.
He said that UN officials also have immunity, including Carla del Ponte. On the other hand, Milanovic thinks that filing a complaint with the UN Secretary General and Security Council would stand a better chance, but this would be a political process primarily, rather than a legal one.
After a meeting in April this year between Damir Alic and the ICTY Chief Prosecutor Brammertz, the Hague Prosecutor agreed to send photographs of the Srebrenica-related artifacts still held by the Prosecution to the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The families would then make a decision about how to distribute the artifacts and return them to Srebrenica by the end of the year.
“The prosecutor also arranged an external audit of its evidence storage facilities to ensure that proper procedures are in place for the preservation of the remaining artifacts”, said Swinnen.
Alic told BIRN that he had received a letter from the President of the Hague Tribunal Theodor Meron several weeks ago which expressed his support for the people of Srebrenica and his condolences to the families over the disposal of artifacts.
Nerma Jelacic, a spokesperson for the Hague Tribunal, said that the authority over the case lay with the Prosecution, and that Meron had no power to monitor the prosecution’s work, unless it was closely related to a court case.
In July 1995 Srebrenica was shelled and occupied by the Army of Republic of Srpska,VRS, despite being declared a protected area by the United Nations. More than 7,000 people were killed, the victims of genocide.
The Bosnian Serb commander’s role in the genocide committed in Srebrenica is described in detail in many indictments and verdicts pronounced before local and international judicial institutions.
Indictments in 1995 and 2000, further amended in 2002 and 2010, charge the former commander of the Republika Srpska Army with genocide and other crimes.
When Mladic ordered his army to bomb the people of Sarajevo until they ‘go insane’, he revealed the murderous intentions that would culminate in the Srebrenica massacre.