HLC on War Crimes Trials in Serbia

Press Release composed in view of the US Ambassador for the War Crimes Issues, John Clint Williamson’s visit

Legal Regulations

Under the International Community’s pressure and in direct relation to the state’s obligation to respond to the war crimes committed in the recent past with legal instruments, the state of Serbia adopted laws, which were the basis for establishment of special institutions for prosecution of war crimes. The War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office operates in Serbia as of July 2003, as well as the War Crimes Chamber, which is a part of the Belgrade District Court. There are three chambers consisted of three members, who are all Judges, by which participation of Jurors, who obviously sympathized with the defendants in previous trials in Case “Sjeverin” and Case “Podujevo”, was eliminated.

The trials are being administered in technically impeccable conditions. Audio and video recordings make it possible for every word pronounced in the courtroom to be entered into the transcript. Possible arbitrariness, which usually appeared in traditional record dictation, is thus circumvented.

Legal regulations are coordinated with the needs of effective trials: the institute of witness-collaborator was introduced; the law on admissibility and possibility of use of records and other evidence from The Hague Tribunal as evidence in local war crimes trials was passed; provisions regarding cooperation between the courts and prosecutor’s offices in countries on the territory of the former Yugoslavia were enacted; and, finally, the new Criminal Procedure Code, from which some provisions entered into effect on 10 July 2006, prescribes and enables witness protection including use of pseudonyms during testimonies, changing identities and emigration to other countries.

War Crimes Judges

War crimes trials in Serbia are organized in a professional manner and Judges are guided by the law in determining facts about defendants’ liability. Despite the fact that the majority in the Government and the Parliament sees The Hague indictees as Serbian heroes, the War Crimes Judges in the “Sjeverin”, “Podujevo”, and “Ovčara” cases, as well as in the ongoing trials for “Zvornik” and “Scorpions” cases, have shown their clear impartiality, professionalism, and commitment to the law. Even though the Judges are bound by the factual description as presented in the indictment, they do adopt novelties from the work of ICTY as a result of their regard for the specifics of the criminal act of war crimes. Such novelties include consideration of facts not included in the indictment in order to clarify the context in which a crime happened and the crime itself (e.g. case “Ovčara”).

The Presiding Judge in Case “Ovčara”, Vesko Krstajić, has so far been the only Judge in the region of the former Yugoslavia, to whom the victims’ families expressed gratitude for the impartial trial process and his respect shown for the victims’ dignity.

War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office

So far, trials have suggested that War Crimes Prosecutors act in line with demands from the executive and the governing political elites: they prosecute immediate perpetrators of war crimes (those who pulled the trigger); they treat the perpetrators as members of paramilitary units, criminal associations or persons with past criminal records. In cases where perpetrators are members of the Ministry of Interior or the Yugoslav Army, they are portrayed as transgressors in isolated incident cases.

It happens in practice that prosecutors try to minimize or completely eliminate any role of the Republic of Serbia’s institutions, regular police and military troops, and their connection to the war crimes and armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

Sometimes, it also happens that a prosecutor advises witnesses before giving evidence in court to speak freely about the crimes committed, but not to connect the State Security Service and Serbian MUP in any way to the crimes committed and the war in BiH (e.g. a witness in case “Zvornik”).

In the main hearing of case “Scorpions”, which took place on 5 July 2006, the Prosecutor reacted fiercely in relation to the proposal given by the victims’ representative Nataša Kandić. She suggested that the court requires information on the Serbian MUP members, whose names were mentioned in the Republic of Srpska MUP official communiqués about wounded fighters at the Trnovo frontline (Srebrenica) in July 1995, which is available to all participants in the proceedings, in order to determine the status of the “Scorpions” unit. He demanded that the Trial Chamber take a stand regarding the procedural position of the injured parties’ representative because, as he said, that “position is often abused and exceeds the context of what the state indictment represents in this and other cases.”

By the abovementioned reaction, the Prosecutor revealed his strategy of determined fight against revelation of facts and evidence that could provide help in determining the fact that the “Scorpions” unit was at the Trnovo frontline in July 1995 as a part of the Serbian MUP forces, as the documents in the case file show.

HLC’s Role in War Crimes Trials

According to the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code regulating the position of the injured parties’ legitimate representatives in criminal proceedings, the HLC broadened its role of human rights’ defenders by taking on the role of a victims’ representative in the war crimes trials. Due to the impartiality in documenting war crimes, knowledge and experience acquired in representing justice for victims, as well as the reputation earned in the region of the former Yugoslavia, the HLC became, in the eyes of the victims and the public, a guarantee of justice and establishment of responsibility for the war crimes committed in the recent past.

In all completed trials (“Sjeverin“, “Podujevo“, and “Ovčara“), the HLC managed to ensure victims’ participation, helped the Prosecutor’s Office with the HLC owned documentation on the cases, and represented victims. In the ongoing trials (“Scorpions” and “Zvornik”), besides representing victims, it ensures victims’ participation in the trials and provides psychological support for the victims during their stay in Serbia. The HLC helped the Prosecutor in Case “Zvornik” obtain additional evidence and witnesses and initiated the beginning of investigation into the killing of more than 650 Bosniaks in the Zvornik Municipality, which is not the subject of the present indictment.

Stimulating Regional Cooperation

The HLC supported the BiH War Crimes Court to continue the trial in “Šimšić” case after the three-month-long blockade, by preparing transcripts of audio recordings from 64 days of trial of Mitar Vasiljević before the Hague Tribunal, which was requested by the Defence Council as a condition for their participation in the trial.

The HLC, upon the BiH Prosecutor’s Office request, delivered its documentation on the war crimes committed in Bijeljina. In Case “Đurković” the HLC secured presence of two witnesses of the organized expulsion of Bosniaks from Bijeljina during the years of 1993 and 1994.

During the year of 2006, the HLC organized three meetings of the Tuzla Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office and Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office in relation to the ongoing trial of the former Mayer, Zvornik Territorial Defence Commander, et al. for the war crimes committed in the period from April to July 1992 (Case “Zvornik”). The aforementioned regional communication resulted in the fact that the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office and the HLC proposed new witnesses, provided by the HLC, to the court, which contributed to the complete disclosure of events mentioned in the present indictment. At the same time, the HLC managed to convince the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office to initiate investigation in relation to the killing of more than 650 Bosniaks, which was not included in the present indictment.

Impact of War Crimes Trials to Change of Relation Towards Past

The public in Serbia has no opportunity too see the course of the war crimes trials before national courts on TV. The Law does not allow free broadcasting of live hearings from the courtroom, which seriously obstructs every effort in Serbia to come to terms with the practice of impunity and glorification of The Hague indictees as Serbian heroes and replace it by the culture of solidarity and sympathy for the victims.

War crimes trials do not represent important media topics. It is obvious that the media are trying to conceal in their reports the information on the involvement of Serbian institutions, police and army, in the commission of war crimes in BiH. Politicians, media, and War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office in Serbia are in agreement that information and evidence on the connection of the State Security Service and Serbian MUP, as well as Serbian Army and its security services, with the war crimes committed in BiH should not be revealed, allegedly in the best interest of Serbia,  in order to prevent the International Court of Justice from establishing the responsibility of Serbia for the genocide and obliging it to pay reparation for war damages.

By this wrongful approach to the responsibility of the Serbian institutions during the Milošević regime, the present political elites are trying to create a parallel past and history. At the same time, they are forgetting about the fact that the Hague Tribunal has determined the court truth, in myriad verdicts, and this truth incontestably speaks of the Serbian institutions’ responsibility for the war crimes committed in BiH, Croatia, and Kosovo.