War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office Blocking War Crimes Trials in Serbia

Nataša Kandić

Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor’s office is experiencing problems initiating proceedings against Bosnian nationals because the world sees Serbia as the aggresor in Bosnia and Bosnia as the martyr of the 1990s, war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukčević told Politika in an interview on 6 March 2011, following the arrest of retired Bosnian Army general Jovan Divjak on a warrant from Serbia.

This political picture was unacceptable, Vukčević said, adding that he would continue to prosecute „criminals, whatever uniform they wore“.   Mr. Vukčević has apparently forgotten that the Serbian Justice Ministry in its request to a British court for the extradition of Ejup Ganić in February 2010, said that at the time of the incident in Sarajevo’s Dobrovoljačka Street there was an international armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thus admitting that the Yugoslav Army (JNA) was a foreign army on Bosnian territory.

The prosecutor’s announcement that he will prosecute all war criminals, meaning foreign citizens, also needs some clarification.  Applying this principle, the war crimes prosecutor’s office [the Serbian judiciary] has had four failures to date:
(1)  Kosovo Albanian Hasan Morina, accused by the prosecutor’s office of war crimes against Serbs, was acquitted by a court and released from detention.  The Supreme Court then ordered a re-trial which never took place, as Serbia does not have the authority to compel a foreign citizen to appear before its courts;  (2) Bosnian Croat Ilija Jurišić, accused of using „illicit means of warfare“, was given a 12-year sentence only to have the verdict overturned and a retrial ordered by the Appeals Court in Belgrade.  This will take place if  Jurišić, who was released, decides to appear before a court in Serbia; (3) The prosecutor’s office sought the extradition from Britain of of Ejup Ganić, arrested on a Serbian warrant;  Ganić, however, was released by a British court on the grounds that the request was politically motivated. (4)  The office submitted a request to the Bosnian State Court for the extradition of Croatian veteran Tihomir Purda, also arrested on a warrant from Serbia, but quickly dropped the case due to lack of evidence.

The informed public in Serbia ascribed the overturning of the initial verdict in the Jurišić case to international pressure, and not to an independent decision by the Appeals Court. In the Ganić case, the prosecutor’s office disgraced itself professionally before the British court, which described testimony by deputy war crimes prosecutor Milan Petrović as unreliable.  In the case of the Croatian veteran, Purda, the prosecutor’s office was unable to cite the identity of the victims for whose deaths he was suspected.  This served to increase suspicion among the informed public that the trial was political.  The public sees the withdrawal of the request for his extradition as part of a political deal between Serbia and Croatia, although the relevant legal steps had obviously been taken.

Whatever one may think of the Dobrovoljačka case, there are many families in Serbia who are seeking an answer to the question of who was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. The question remains of what really happened in Sarajevo on 2 and 3 May 1992, from minute to minute, from vehicle to vehicle, from soldier to soldier.

The case has never been tried by a competent court in Bosnia: the investigation was not completed, no indictment was raised. It will surely not be solved by international arrest warrants, protests, public reaction by politicians, NGOs and the like.  Only the Bosnian judiciary can draw a line under this case, and if Serbia entertains doubts about its objectivity, then a mixed investigation commission formed by the Bosnian and Serbian prosecutors’ offices.  From this aspect, there is some point to Prosecutor  Vukčević ‘s urging the Bosnian prosecutors to hasten the investigation, and with that in view, to hand over all the evidence on the Dobrovoljačka case. This would enable the facts of the crime and criminal responsibility for the death of the JNA soldiers to be ascertained.  As matters stand, distrust in the Serbian judiciary grows by the day throughout the region, undoubtedly diminishing any will on the part of witnesses from the region to testify before courts in Serbia.

As prosecutors, Mr Vukčević and his deputies have made many mistakes in trying war crimes in Serbia. Clear priorities and strategies would help to correct some of them. The first task of this prosecutor’s office is to indict Serbian nationals who committed war crimes if there is to be a rule of law in Serbia.  Its second task is to pass on the evidence of war crimes committed against Serbian victims to the competent prosecutors’ offices in the region, who also have a duty to first try war crimes committed by their own nationals.  The third task is to strengthen the professional capacity of the prosecutor’s office, primarily by engaging young lawyers who do not come trailing the heavy burden of responsibility for the past.