Cases Closed: Deaths of Ageing Balkan War Suspects Thwart Justice
When the trial of a group of Serb fighters accused of the abductions and killings of passengers who were seized from a train in Bosnia during the war in 1993 continues at Belgrade Higher Court next month, there will be one fewer defendant in the dock.
That is because one of the accused, Ljubisa Vasiljevic, died in early July – the most recent of several dozen war crimes defendants in the former Yugoslavia who have died before the verdicts in their trials, making it even harder to get justice for the victims of the crimes committed during the 1990s wars.
According to the Serbian indictment, Vasiljevic was one of a group of fighters who went to a small railway station at Strpci near the Bosnia-Serbia border on February 27, 1993 and forced the train dispatcher to stop a train that was travelling from Belgrade to Bar in Montenegro.
Some of them entered the carriages, started checking passengers’ identity documents, and took 20 people off the train. All of them were non-Serbs – 18 Bosniaks, one Croat and one person whose identity remains unknown to this day.
The fighters loaded them into a military truck and drove them to an elementary school in the nearby village of Prelovo. There the captives were beaten, ordered to take off their clothes and robbed of money and valuables.
Wearing nothing but their underwear, with their hands tied behind their backs, the victims were driven to a burned-out house in the village of Musici, where they were executed in groups of two or three.
Vasiljevic was the second defendant on trial for the Strpci crime to have died this year. The case against former Bosnian Serb Army soldier Vuk Ratkovic, who was being prosecuted in a parallel trial in Sarajevo, was terminated in April due to his death.
The indictment in Bosnia and Herzegovina was issued in 2015, and the trial began the same year, while in Serbia, the indictment was filed in 2018 and the trial started in 2019.
Both cases were progressing slowly until 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic slowed them down even more. When Ratkovic and Vasiljevic died, the verdicts in their trials were still a long way off.
Ratkovic was the 26th war crimes defendant to die during the course of his trial in Bosnia and Herzegovina over the past six years. The total number of war crimes indictees who have died before justice was done in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia is over 35.
More than three decades after the wars in the former Yugoslavia began, all three countries insist they are committed to continuing to launch new war crimes investigations and issue new indictments.
But as the years pass, and witnesses and suspects become older, fall ill and die, the slow pace of judicial progress increasingly raises the question of whether final verdicts will ever be delivered in cases that are opened so long after the crimes were committed.
Vehid Sehic, a former Bosnian judge and head of an NGO called the Forum of Tuzla Citizens that promotes democratic, multi-ethnic values, agreed that the passing of time is a major problem, but pointed out that judiciaries and political elites in all former Yugoslav countries also bear a large portion of the blame for failing to properly support war crimes prosecutions.
“Unfortunately, we live in countries where states protect people suspected of committing war crimes, and when the state behaves like that, then you have a situation in which there are slow proceedings, proceedings that will probably never be completed,” Sehic told BIRN.
“Many people are dying; not just the suspects, many witnesses who could be of use in these proceedings are dying, so many war crimes will not end with a final judgment,” he added.
Bosnia: Suspects die before trials begin
Besides Ratkovic, five other people who were charged with war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina have died since the start of 2020.
One of them was Marinko Prastalo, a former Bosnian Serb Army soldier who was accused of participation in a joint criminal enterprise against Bosnian and Croatian population in Prijedor in July 1992.
Prastalo was allegedly involved in capturing 110 Bosniak civilians in the village of Miska Glava, near the city of Prijedor, about 80 of whom were then shot. The indictment in the case was confirmed in 2017, but the case was closed in October 2020 due to Prastalo’s death.
Wartime Croatian Defence Council fighter Marinko Sunjica was indicted for illegally imprisoning people in detention camps in the Mostar area and with persecuting and severe ill-treating Bosniaks in Mostar in 1992 and 1993. He was also charged with raping a female prisoner, along with several other men. Sunjica’s indictment was confirmed in 2018; the case against him closed in May 2020 due to his death.
Two other suspects died before their trials even opened at the Bosnian state court.
Mehmed Sadikovic, who was in charge of a wartime detention camp at the NK Iskra football stadium in Bugojno, was indicted for allowing the imprisonment of members of the Croatian Defence Council in inhumane conditions, taking them to do forced labour on the front lines and in minefields from July to September 1993.
The indictment was confirmed in 2015, but the trial did not begin due to Sadikovic’s poor health, and the case was dismissed in May 2020 after he died.
The case against Milorad Krunic, a former reservist policeman, who was indicted for committing war crimes in Sanski Most in 1992, also never came to court because he was in Serbia, where he died in January 2021.
The OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina said earlier this month that there was a significant decline in 2020 in the number of war crimes cases that were completed, and that the number of new indictments also fell.
The OSCE also said that at the end of 2020, the Bosnian judiciary had a remaining backlog of 571 unresolved war crimes cases, involving 4,498 suspects.
The length of time that has elapsed since the crimes in the 1990s also hampers investigators, making it hard to obtain material evidence, Sehic pointed out.
If such evidence has not already been gathered by prosecutors, making a successful case and getting a conviction will be much harder, he said: “Where you have almost nothing, where you have only witnesses, it is very difficult to deliver a judgment that must be based on indisputably established facts.”
Serbia: Few indictments, even fewer convictions
In November 2020, Belgrade Appeals Court issued a final verdict convicting a group of wartime Serb policemen, soldiers and paramilitaries of the killing of Croat civilians in the Croatian village of Lovas in October 1991 – some 29 years after the crime.
The verdict marked the end of proceedings that had dragged on for 13 years in Serbia.
Those 13 years saw many changes in the case, most notably a reduction in the number of defendants and, as a consequence, a reduction in the number of victims mentioned in the charges. The convicted men’s sentences were also reduced on appeal.
The defendants in the Lovas case were accused of committing multiple crimes in the village in the first half of October 1991, which culminated on October 18 when civilians were used by Serb forces as human shields in a nearby minefield. Nineteen Croats were killed and 12 were seriously wounded.
When the indictment in the case was amended after some of the defendants died, some of their crimes were omitted from the rewritten charge sheet, which decreased the total number of victims listed in the case.
A total of 14 people were initially indicted in the Lovas case in 2007, but the final verdict only dealt with eight of them, and just six were convicted.
“In the Lovas [case], of the 14 who were originally accused, five defendants died during the proceedings and one became incapacitated, so that the number of victims in the charges has in fact more than halved,” Marina Kljajic, a lawyer from the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre who was the victims’ representative in the case, told BIRN.
Including last month’s death of Ljubisa Vasiljevic, five war crimes defendants have died during court proceedings in Serbia in the last half-decade, according to the Humanitarian Law Centre’s data. Kljajic also said that seven more defendants have become unable to stand trial.
As well as being disparaged for its slow pace of prosecutions, Serbia has often been criticised for not bringing to justice high-ranking army and police officials who were involved in crimes in the Croatian, Bosnian and Kosovo wars.
Croatia: Suspects unreachable across the borders
Croatia shares some of the same problems as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia in bringing to justice suspects from the 1991-95 war in the country. It has the additional problem that some of those suspects left the country long ago and have no intention of returning.
In August this year, Pero Vincetic, a former member of the Croatian Defence Council, the Bosnian Croat wartime force, died shortly after being charged with war crimes.
Vincetic, who held Croatian and Bosnian citizenship, was arrested in July in eastern Croatia after police said he was suspected of the abuse of two civilians in the north-eastern Bosnian town of Orasje early in the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He had already been indicted in Bosnia on charges of rape, sexual abuse and other war crimes against Serbs in the Orasje area in 1992 and 1993.
War crime trials are sometimes delayed or even prevented from taking place altogether because the suspect is in another country and cannot be extradited.
In 2010, the Osijek County State’s Attorney’s Office in eastern Croatia charged Enes Taso, commander of the Yugoslav People’s Army Motorised Brigade, with failing to prevent civilians from being tortured, killed or illegally imprisoned in the village of Dalj during the war.
Taso was in Serbia, and although evidence was submitted to the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade, it refused to initiate criminal proceedings. Taso then died without ever being tried, and the case was closed in 2019, the Croatian State Attorney said.
Another Serb suspect, Dragan Kovacic, a wartime member of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina rebel statelet in Croatia, who was charged with shelling civilian buildings in the Croatian city of Karlovac in 1993, also evaded trial when he died in 2016.
The exact number of war crimes suspects and defendants in Croatian cases who have died before their final verdicts is unclear.
According to the Croatian State Attorney’s Office’s annual reports, charges against 16 people were dropped in 2019 and 2020 “either due to the death of a potential suspect, or due to the lack of reasonable suspicion”.
The issue of ageing defendants poses a real problem for prosecutors in the Balkans, experts agree, although under international law, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes are not subject to any statute of limitations. Elsewhere in the world, trials of elderly suspects accused of committing crimes during World War II are still very occasionally held, more than seven decades afterwards.
Kljajic argued that although a lot of time has passed since the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia, new cases can still be investigated and brought to court.
“Of course it is possible to conduct investigations in the future, because despite the fact that witnesses die or become incapable of testifying, statements that can be used have often been given to the relevant authorities before that, and there is evidence that has already been collected, but there are also witnesses who can testify in court,” she said.
“It is more difficult than it would have been 20 or 25 years ago, but anyway, proceedings can be conducted successfully.”