Beta: Media not interested in war crime trials

Beta, 22.09.2009. – Trials for war crimes before courts in Serbia are conducted professionally but there are few indictments, and these are mainly against low-ranking perpetrators, concluded a report prepared by a regional war crime trial monitoring team.

The report published by the Center for Peace, Non-violence and Human Rights Osijek, the Humanitarian Law Center and the Research and Documentation Center Sarajevo states that in recent indictments in Serbia the role of Serbian state institutions and regular police and armed forces in war crimes is either minimized or completely absent.

According to the trial monitors, the public and media in Serbia are not interested in war crime trials, and the laws that prevent filming in, and broadcasting from, the courtroom seriously aggravate efforts aimed at combating impunity and the lionizing of Hague indictees in Serbia, and do not evoke sympathy for victims. The Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor does not have enough financial resources to work efficiently. Also, it does not have the support of MPs in the Serbian Parliament. Rather, the war crimes prosecutor “works in a hostile political environment and is exposed to attacks in the Serbian Parliament by a nationalist opposition”, the report added.

Owing to the practice of overruling judgements and returning cases for retrial, the report is critical of the Serbian Supreme Court, stating that its work is not led by legal, but political, reasoning. The report concludes that the Supreme Court seriously hinders war crime trials. By 2008 eight first instance judgements had been brought down in Serbia; the Supreme Court affirmed two of them, whereas in the other cases either the sentences were reduced or they were sent back for retrial at the lesser instance court, it was said in the report.

Cooperation between the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor and prosecutors and judges from the region, particularly Croatia, and with human rights organizations, as well as the quality support to witnesses provided by the Humanitarian Law Center, were positively evaluated in the report.

According to the analysis of the trial monitors of the three NGOs, between 2003 and 2008 there has been a significant shift in initiating and conducting war crime trials in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

The report also showed however that there are a large number of uninvestigated and unprocessed crimes which result from the fact that suspects are not available to the courts in the countries where the crimes were committed because Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina do not permit the extradition of their nationals.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina a major problem is the application of various different legislation in cantonal courts and at the federal level. And in all three countries the prosecutors are under great pressure not to question the responsibility of the state, i.e. the state institutions, in their indictments.

Witnesses in war crime trials often request to give testimony in camera which indicates that the atmosphere in which trials are conducted is one of fear and not propitious to testifying about war crimes, the report concluded. Between 2004 and 2008 – the period covered in the report – the Center for Peace, Non-violence and Human Rights Osijek, the Humanitarian Law Center and the Research and Documentation Center Sarajevo monitored 25 war crime trials: 14 in Croatia, four in Belgrade, one case in Banja Luka and seven before the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.