Anonymization of judgments in war crimes cases contrary to national and international regulations
On 16 January 2014, the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) appealed to the Commissioner for information of public importance against the decision of the Higher Court in Belgrade (the Higher Court) to deny the HLC access to the full text of the court judgments delivered in the Beli Manastir and Gnjilane Group cases. The HLC notes that the Serbian courts’ practice of judgment “anonymization” in war crimes cases runs contrary to the Serbian Constitution and other national and international regulations and denies victims and the society the right to know the truth about the crimes that were committed.
As part of its regular war crimes trials monitoring and analysis activities, the HLC addressed the Higher Court with a request to be granted access to the non-final judgments delivered in the Beli Manastir and Gnjilane Group cases. The Higher Court sent the requested judgments to the HLC but substantial parts of their content had been redacted (blacked out), including even the names of the accused in the Gnjilane Group judgment. The HLC approached the Higher Court again requesting access to the redacted parts of the text. On 13 January 2014, the Higher Court denied the request invoking the Law on Personal Data Protection, without specifying the provisions of this law that would have been violated had the request been granted.
The HLC further notes that in the process of data anonymization, parts of judgments containing information on convicted individuals, witnesses, attorneys and even expert witnesses are being completely blacked out, rendering the judgments effectively unreadable and unusable both for legal analysis and understanding of the events in question.
In its appeal to the Commissioner, the HLC emphasized that the Law on Personal Data Protection does not provide for absolute protection of personal data. More specifically, Article 5 states that protection does not apply to data “accessible to everyone and published in the public media or publications or available from archives, museums and other similar organizations”. In this regard, the HLC recalls that war crimes trials are public and that the data from anonymized judgments is available to the public through the media, individuals or organizations like the HLC that monitor war crimes trials.
Also, Article 14 of the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance explicitly states that data protection provisions do not apply to cases where the data requested relates to “a person, event or occurrence of public interest“ or to “a person whose behavior, in particular concerning his/her private life, has provided justification for a request for such information“.
The said practice of the Higher Court also contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 6) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 14) which guarantee public access to court proceedings, as well as judgments.
The Supreme Court of Cassation and the Court of Appeals in Belgrade use the same practice as the Higher Court, even though these two courts adopted, in 2010 and 2012 respectively, the rules on anonymization of court decisions which expressly prescribe that the personal data of accused and convicted individuals are not to be anonymized in court decisions rendered in war crimes, organized crime and money laundering cases. The Higher Court has not yet adopted or made public such rules.
The HLC warns that anonymization of court judgments issued in war crimes cases constitutes a flagrant violation of the right of victims and the general public to know the truth about the crimes committed.