Plea Deals and Trial Delays: Serbia’s Problems with Srebrenica Cases

Plea Deals and Trial Delays: Serbia’s Problems with Srebrenica Cases
BalkanInsight_logoAlthough Serbia has been prosecuting some Bosnian Serb ex-soldiers and policemen for crimes committed during the 1995 Srebrenica massacres, the cases have been marred by repeated delays and experts say the final sentences are inexplicably lenient.

On July 13 and 14, 1995 Bosnian Serb forces killed 1,313 Bosniak men in the warehouse in the village of Kravica after they were captured following the fall of Srebrenica.

The four names were among those read out by judge Mirjana Ilic at Belgrade Higher Court during a hearing on June 30, when the court was examining evidence including death certificates and DNA findings about the identities of the victims who were found in the Ravnice mass grave and others around Srebrenica.

The court is currently trying seven members of the Republika Srpska Interior Ministry’s Special Police Brigade for their alleged involvement in the executions at the Kravica warehouse.

The Kravica massacre was part of a broader campaign conducted by Bosnian Serb forces after the fall of Srebrenica, which ended with the killings of more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys and the expulsion of some 40,000 women, children and elderly people.

The anniversary will be commemorated at the Srebrenica Memorial Centre on July 11, when victims’ remains that have been identified over the past year will be buried.

Serbia does not accept that the Srebrenica crimes constituted genocide, despite the verdicts of international courts, and is prosecuting defendants for committing war crimes against the civilian population instead. Even prosecuting Serbs for Bosnian war crimes is unpopular in Serbia, where some right-wing nationalists still see war criminals like Ratko Mladic as heroes and the country’s political leaders consistently downplay atrocities like Srebrenica.

A total of five cases related to Srebrenica have been launched in Serbia so far; one ended with a conviction after a full trial, while two were concluded with plea bargains.

The two other cases are still being tried, including the Kravica massacre case, but they have been marked by repeated delays and postponements of hearings.

Since the beginning of 2022, a total of 16 hearings have been scheduled, ten of which were postponed or cancelled. At five hearings, written evidence was read out, and at the other hearing, the trial was restarted from the beginning.

NGOs allege that there has been deliberate stalling as Serbia is not keen to convict Serbs of Srebrenica crimes.

Ruti Teitel, a professor at New York Law School and writer on transitional justice issues, told BIRN that war crimes trials are often drawn-out because the seriousness of the offences means that courts try to “show fairness and due process to the defence”.

Teitel noted that that the Hague Tribunal’s trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic went on for four years before his death and “was continually stopped and started because of his alleged health issues”.

“But the problem I think now is that we are close to three decades from the genocide in Srebrenica and so there is more of a worry that you could lose defendants, that something could happen, you know, from a political perspective… that would make these trials impossible to continue,” she said.

Kravica executions trial crawls onwards

The trial for the Kravica killings at Belgrade Higher Court opened in February 2017 but the original charges were dismissed in July same year because they were not filed by the authorised prosecutor. The trial then started again in November 2017.

The defendants are former Bosnian police special forces members Nedeljko Milidragovic, Aleksa Golijanin, Milivoje Batinica, Aleksandar Dacevic, Bora Miletic, Jovan Petrovic and Vidoslav Vasic. Another indicted suspect, Dragomir Parovic, was excused from the trial because of health problems.

Marina Kljaic, who represents the victims in the case, said that during 2022, there were ten scheduled hearings but only two were held, and were also taken up with the reading of written evidence.

“The trial hearings were postponed twice due to the absence of a member of the trial chamber, once due to the absence of the defence counsel, four times due to the absence of one of the accused and once due to a request for the exemption of the acting deputy prosecutor and the president of the trial chamber [from the trial],” Kljajic told BIRN.

The trial formally started from the beginning again on June 12 – but this could still be a source of future issues for the ongoing process.

Belgrade Higher Court told BIRN that the mandate of one of the judges on the trial judging panel expired on May 1, so a new judge had to be appointed. Under Serbian law, that means a trial has to restart from the beginning.

At the June 12 hearing, all the defendants repeated that they pleaded not guilty.

However, although the defence and prosecution have agreed that the testimonies of witnesses who have given evidence in court so far can be read out, without them being called to testify again, there has been no agreement yet about two protected witnesses who have given evidence.

The court did not make a decision about the issue by the time of publication of this article.

Judge Terzic was also on the judging panel in the other ongoing case related to Srebrenica at Belgrade Higher Court, against Milenko Zivanovic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Drina Corps, who is accused of ordering and participating in the forcible relocation of the Bosniak civilian population from Srebrenica. It was not clear at the time of publication whether or not this trial will have to restart too.

Progress in Zivanovic’s case has already been slow. His trial started in September 2022; he pleaded not guilty. Since March this year, when the court heard two witnesses, three hearings have been scheduled and all three cancelled.

Plea bargains keep crime details hidden

The two Srebrenica-related prosecutions in Serbia that were concluded with plea bargains were the cases against Miomir Jasikovac, wartime military police commander of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Zvornik Brigade and Brano Gojkovic, wartime member of the Bosnian Serb Army’s 10th Detachment.

According to Serbian law, if there is a plea bargain, there is no trial, the hearing at which the deal is confirmed is closed to the public, and verdict is shorter than in regular cases and does not provide any more details about the crimes than what is already written in the indictment.

Teitel said that usually in cases that involve serious human rights violations, plea bargains are agreed that offer more lenient punishments “with an eye to getting more truth for society” that can aid post-war reconciliation and bolster the rule of law.

But in countries in Serbia, where the plea hearings are closed and the verdicts hardly provide any details about the crimes, Teitel said that such deals between defendant and prosecution are “problematic”.

“These are not productive plea bargains, and they are not adding to justice, and they are not adding to history,” she said.

Jasikovac pleaded guilty in January this year in return for a relatively lenient sentence.

The verdict said he admitted that he guarded “prisoners of war and male civilians” who had been captured by Bosnian Serb Army troops, knowing that the Bosniaks would be “summarily liquidated”.

Jasikovac also admitted that he “took them to the place of execution” where they were shot dead by Bosnian Serb soldiers. The victims were killed in the village of Orahovac on July 14, 1995 and in Rocevic the following day.

Jasikovac also admitted that on July 14, 1995, he told military policemen from the Zvornik Brigade’s military police company to report to Zvornik Brigade’s 6th Battalion command, after which they and other members of the Zvornik Brigade participated in the shooting of more than 100 captive Bosniak men.

In return for pleading guilty, Jasikovac was sentenced to five years in prison.

The Serbian Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to BIRN’s question about the reasons behind the deal.

In a previous plea bargain at Belgrade Higher Court, Brano Gojkovic was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2016. Gojkovic admitted he was part of a group of troops who killed hundreds of Bosniak civilians at a military farm in Branjevo on July 16, 1995.

Kljajic said that courts never accept a plea bargain automatically and consider various issues including whether or not “the proposed sentence is in accordance with the law”.

She argued however that the sentence in the Jasikovac case was “at the legal minimum for that type of criminal offence”, and that judging by the verdict, “it is not clear what exactly led the prosecution and the court to determine that level [of sentence]”.

“Considering what kind of crime it is, the sentence is really too low,” she said.