Serbia Debates War Crime Trials

Proper processing of war criminals is crucial for the region in order to face the past adequately, it has been concluded at the debate about war crime trials in Serbia.

The occasion for the debate held on Friday was the report by the Humanitarian Law Centre, a Belgrade based NGO, on war crime cases that have been processed in Serbia in 2011.

Natasa Kandic, Head of the Center, said that in the past year progress has been made when it comes to regional cooperation.

However, she added that a negative trend has been noted in the number of the indictments filed by the Serbian Prosecution, which in 2011 charged only nine perpetrators.

“Criminal trials are the most important instruments of securing justice, and the verdicts of the courts are the punishment for the misdeeds committed in the past, therefore their work should be monitored closely,” said Kandic.

Even though the report notes a progress in terms of regional cooperation since 2003, political issues often trouble the relationship and cooperation between the prosecutions of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

Bruno Vekaric, Deputy Prosecutor for War Crimes, agrees that regional cooperation has been making some progress, adding that there are still some open issues that need to be settled.

“Serbia has only seven cases with Croatia that are unsolved, but Croatia has around 1500 cases where the accused are Serbian citizens, and some of those cases have serious violation of the legal procedure,” explained Vekaric.

“When it comes to Bosnia, we had almost signed an agreement on war crime processing, but the Bosnian side dropped out at the last minute. But we had some good signals from Bosnia recently, so we hope that this issue will be solved in the near future,” he added.

The Serbian Prosecutor’s Office for War Crimes is currently processing 86 cases in cooperation with prosecutions from the region – 51 cases with Croatia, 8 with Bosnia, 5 with Montenegro and 6 with the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo.

The Humanitarian Law Centre report also addresses the issues of the witness protection system in Serbia explaining that the current system should be reformed, since a number of witnesses complained that they do not have proper protection.

Ivan Jovanovic, Head of the War Crimes Section within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, agrees that there is a problem with the police unit that is taking care of protected witnesses and that OSCE has been advocating for the solving of this issue.

“Unless the system changes, this could be fatal for war crimes proceedings, since those are the most serious issues between the countries in the region,” warns Jovanovic.

Main findings of the report:

  1. Regional Cooperation- Progress has been made since 2003, but it has been influenced by politics. Need for an agreement on cooperation between Serbia and Bosnia has been noted.
  2. Small Number of Indictments- Only nine people have been charged in 2011. Most of the cases that Serbia prosecuted last year have been based on the indictments given by Croatia or Republika Srpska. Serbian Prosecution did not file charges against any low ranking army commander, even though they have access to the public documents of the ICTY that indicate possible perpetrators.
  3. War crime trials conducted at local courts have serious deficiencies.
  4. Appellate Court acts promptly.
  5. There are big differences between judgments of the Special Court and Appellate Court.
  6. Defence is usually prolonging the trials and lacks the knowledge of international law and the practice of the ICTY.
  7. Witness protection in Serbia is not functioning properly. Experts believe it should be under the authorities of the Ministry of Justice and not the police, as it is the case now.
  8. The current law in Serbia is preventing proper public debate because according to the law the ongoing processes cannot be discussed publicly.
  9. The domestic courts are opposed to the wider use of the International Criminal Law and the practice of the ICTY.