Responsibility for the camps in Serbia rests with the JNA

Responsibility for the camps in Serbia rests with the JNA

danas_logoAlmost everything is known about the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) camps for Croats set up in the territory of Serbia after the fall of Vukovar in the autumn of 1991. Civilians were taken to them from the area of Vukovar in contravention of an agreement reached between the JNA and the Croatian side. There were women and children among the detainees. Some 5,000 or so detainees were subjected to daily torture, including humiliation, starvation and inhuman conditions. These facilities were referred to as ‘camps’ even by JNA officers.

And yet, in spite of the many surviving witnesses, the extensive documentation they have submitted to the Serbian Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor (OWCP) and the documentation of the Hague Tribunal, all we have today is one indictment only against one person only, and that a member of the Army of the Krajina. What is more, in the indictment the camp is referred to as a ‘reception centre’, as Sandra Orlović, the Director of the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC), points out in an interview with Danas.

  • Why are there almost no prosecutions of the persons responsible for the crimes committed in the camps in the territory of Serbia (Begejci, Stajićevo, Sremska Mitrovica, et al.) in which persons from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were kept during the 1990s?

– The responsibility for what went on in those camps rests with the JNA; that responsibility reaches to senior posts in the then army nomenclature, as well as to political organs. A just prosecution of this case would shed strong light on the fact that at the very beginning of the war this state established camps, fenced off with wire, in which people were tortured and dehumanized, and all that in the immediate vicinity of Belgrade. This points to the responsibility of the institutions of the then system, which, historically speaking, places a far greater onus on the present state than mere punishment of individuals. The practice so far of processing war crimes in Serbia, and the public relations associated with the trials, indicate that the object of these proceedings is to de-institutionalize the crimes, i.e. to ‘wipe the blot from the people and the state’. In other words, the war crimes trials are designed to show that the crimes were committed by certain rogue groups or individuals who took advantage of the state of anarchy brought on by war to engage in criminal activities. In cases where such a picture cannot possibly be painted due to the circumstances, we either have no trials at all or have flawed indictments in that regard.

  • In 2011 the HLC filed a criminal complaint with the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor against 52 members of the Ministry of the Interior, State Security and the Yugoslav Armed Forces in connection with war crimes committed against more than 850 Bosniaks detained in the camps at Šljivovica and Mitrovo polje, between July 1995 and April 1996. At that time you submitted the names of and contact information about 80 former prisoners of these camps, their statements and other documents. Nevertheless, the OWCP decided last year that ‘there is no cause for criminal prosecution’, after which you established that the witnesses you had proposed had not even been contacted. What is your take of this action of the OWCP?

– In a well-ordered state, the prosecutor in charge of a case who took such a decision, knowingly breaking the law, would at least be suspended. However, because the processing of war crimes in Serbia is still under the strong influence of politics, and because there is a high political price to pay in respect of cases of this kind, no one was upset by the action, nor have there been any consequences. The extent of this flagrant breach of the law and of professional ethics becomes clear if we make a comparison with a hypothetical case. Let us assume that a prosecutor’s office of general jurisdiction has received a criminal complaint against 50 persons accused of rape or some other brutal form of violence against 80 persons and that the prosecutor has rejected the criminal complaint without examining any of the victims. What would happened? Even in today’s Serbia, which is not accustomed to the rule of law, such a prosecutor would suffer serious consequences. Our recourse to the prosecutor’s decision was a constitutional appeal, so we have addressed the Constitutional Court with a request to find the action of the OWCP unlawful and unconstitutional and that on that account the state owes the former camp inmates compensation, as well as an impartial, effective and comprehensive investigation. In the event of a negative decision, we will apply to the European Court of Human Rights, which has developed very strict standards regarding the obligation of states to investigate massive human rights violations.

  • Persons who were detained in Serbian camps during the 1990s now find it hard to exercise their right to compensation before the courts of law. Why? Does that not amount to depriving the victims of serious crimes of their right to just compensation, which is guaranteed under both domestic and international law?

– The international conventions by which the Serbian state is bound and which form part of its internal law, as well as the domestic legal framework, guarantee the right to compensation to the victims of crimes committed by the state’s forces, i.e. the army and the police. What is more, both internal and international law stipulate that the state must provide financial recompense also in respect of crimes which were committed by forces and/or individuals beyond its control but which it had the duty to prevent. These are the legal norms. However, courts in Serbia pay little heed to international law, and interpret internal law in such a way as to shield the state from paying compensation. The attitude of the judges to the victims and their rights is best seen during the proceedings. With rare exceptions, the judges look upon these people, who are mostly of a different nationality, as criminals, even where children are involved, as in the case of the Podujevo crime. They slight those who are not eloquent in speech and ridicule them. In cases involving torture, they summon the policemen who beat these people and ask them, ‘Did you beat this man?’; and when a policeman denies this, they base their judgement on that, in spite of the medical documents and the evidence indicating that the person in question was in good health and uninjured before entering the police station but unable to stand on his feet and had broken ribs afterwards. This is a true picture of the judicial system in Serbia and of the values on which it rests.

  • Nevertheless, there have been different decisions in other cases?

– The government has shown on several occasions that it understands the obligation of just compensation. Those were the cases of the out-of-court compensation awarded to the Stambolić family, to the families of the victims of the Ibar Highway crime, and to the former Goli otok inmates and their families. At that time, we asked the government to pay compensation on the same principle to the victims of war crimes in finally adjudicated cases, starting with the Bogujevci and Duriqi families from Podujevo. In her response to our request, the then Minister of Justice, Snežana Malović, indicated that the government was willing to pay compensation.  However, she insisted that the amount of compensation should be reduced. The argument we put to her, that the amount claimed by the Bogujevci and Duriqi families was one-tenth as high as that which the state had paid in the Stambolić and the Ibar Highway cases, was of no avail. So it then became clear that in some cases the government deemed it expedient to pay compensation only in some cases, and that it was a matter of political hype rather than respect for civilizational principles.

  • In the last of a succession of judgements, delivered following a trial that lasted six years, the First Basic Court in Belgrade dismissed the claims that compensation be awarded to 12 Croatian citizens held in 1991 in the JNA camps at Sremska Mitrovica and Begejci.  The court dismissed the action against Serbia as time-barred.
  • The court did not accept the argument that in this case it must apply longer prescription periods because the criminal offence in question involved a war crime against a civilian population. How would you comment on the courts’ practice in such cases?

– Declaring victims’ claims time-barred is the most perfidious way in which the courts dismiss compensation claims. Ostensibly, everything is in accordance with the law and the legal position of the Supreme Court, the statute of limitations is a universal legal principle, etc.

However, if we look back over the last ten years or so, we shall see that in cases where former JNA members claimed damages from Serbia in respect of harm suffered on the battlefield, the prescription provisions were interpreted by these same courts, and by the same Supreme Court, in a way that is completely opposite to that applied to the crimes committed by Serbian forces. To put it simply, what is involved here is discrimination against the victims of human rights violations committed by Serbian forces; for which reason, we have already applied to the European Court.

About 10,000 prisoners

In the 1990s, there were camps in the territory of Serbia during two periods: from October 1991 to August 1992, and from July 1995 to April 1996. According to data of the Croatian camp inmates’ associations, some 7,000 Croats were detained in the camps; the data of the HLC indicates that some 10,000 people from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were held in the camps. According to data of the County Court in Osijek, at least 21 inmates were subjected to torture.