The third acquittal for war crimes in 2017
On December 25, 2017, the War Crimes Chamber of the Belgrade High Court delivered a judgment acquitting Marko Pauković and Dragan Bajić of charges for war crimes against a civilian population, owing to a lack of evidence. As members of the Military Police of the Sixth Brigade of the Republika Srpska Army, Bajić and Pauković were accused of murdering Hasan Rahić (aged 60), Minka Jusić (aged 70) Munira Hotić (aged 54), Đemila Behar (aged 54) and the then minor Safeta Behar (aged 12), in the town of Kamičak (Ključ municipality, Bosnia and Herzegovina), on October 10, 1992. The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) notes that this is only the third verdict for war crimes cases that has been brought in Serbia in 2017; like the previous two, it is acquitting. In March, the Court of Appeal acquitted Goran Šinik of the murder of civilians in Gradiška (BiH) in 1992; and in April, Neđeljko Sovilj and Rajko Vekić were acquitted of the murder of civilians in the municipality of Bosanski Petrovac (BiH) in December 1992.
This years track record of the specialized prosecutor’s office and court for the prosecution of war crimes in Serbia indicates an alarming slowdown in the punishment of those responsible for the crimes committed during the wars in the Former Yugoslavia, if not even an abandonment of the process. In all three cases, it has been the result of the poor practice of the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor (OWCP), into raising insufficiently substantiated indictments, but also of the Court into confirming such indictments without a comprehensive analysis of the evidence presented.
Raising unfounded indictments inevitably results in acquittals. Explaining the judgment in the case against Pauković and Bajić, the President of the Trial Chamber, Judge Vera Vukotić, stated that the Court had concluded that, on the basis of the evidence presented, it was not possible to conclude that the accused had committed the crime they were charged with. Assessing the testimony of the prosecution witnesses, the Court found that they were contradictory, illogical and not true to life, and also contrary to other evidence. She further stated that none of the persons who had witnessed the events of the murders and who were listed in the indictment had been called during the trial. The Court had therefore acted according to the rule in dubio pro reo – i.e. in the absence of evidence, it had ruled in favour of the accused.
Identical situation were to be observed in the proceedings against Goran Šinik and against Sovilj and Vekić. In the proceedings against Šinik, the Court found that, on the basis of the presented evidence, it could only be concluded that the accused Šinik had taken one civilian away, but not that he had killed him, as the OWCP claimed in the indictment. In the proceedings against Sovilj and Vekić, the Court of Appeal found in its judgment that the testimony of the key witness of the indictment was “insufficiently logical and pertinent” and “denounced by the testimonies of other witnesses”.
All three cases were taken over from the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH, and in the OWCP in Serbia the indictment was filed by the then Deputy Prosecutor for War Crimes, who is today the Prosecutor – Snežana Stanojković. The HLC has pointed out before that the OWCP’s practice of filing seemingly larger indictments, regardless of whether they have valid evidence to confirm the indictments during the process, falsely presents its work on obtaining justice for war crimes.
The HLC calls upon the WCPO to focus on increasing the actual rather than the apparent efficiency of its work, and to make sure that all indictments are well prepared and backed up by solid evidence before their being raised. The HLC aslo appeals to the Court, not to confirm insufficiently prepared indictments. This would prevent the wasting of the material and human resources of the Prosecutor’s Office and the Court, but would also prevent the issuance of unavoidably acquitting judgments due to lack of evidence. Unsubstantiated indictment and, consequently, acquitting judgments lead to the failing of victims’ hopes for obtaining justice and further increase their suffering. With such actions, the OWCP also undermines the regional cooperation of the war crimes prosecutor’s offices and acts in opposition to the proclaimed determination of the authorities of the Republic of Serbia to bring to justice all those responsible for the crimes from the past wars.