Experts Say Many Balkan War Crimes Will Never Be Prosecuted

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (CN) — Twenty-three years after war ended in the former Yugoslavia, thousands of war crimes and criminals still have not been investigated by prosecutors or brought before judges, and experts expect many suspects will never face trial.

In Sarajevo, museums that examine Srebrenica and the atrocities that took place during the Bosnian war attract many visitors. Signs for two such museums are seen in a square in Sarajevo. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

The amount of unfinished work from the wars in the former Yugoslavia demonstrates how difficult, politically charged, time-consuming and frustrating it can be to bring to light crimes committed during a war and bring to justice those responsible.

“Sadly, the workload is such that there is no chance that all suspects will be prosecuted, not even most,” said Iva Vukusic, a Utrecht University historian and former analyst in the Special Department for War Crimes for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s prosecutor’s office.

That’s not to say that justice has not been fulfilled on many levels.

The war’s most complicated and high-profile cases — such as that against former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic — were handled by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. That tribunal indicted 161 people and convicted 90, including generals, politicians and commanders in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. The tribunal closed last December and transferred its remaining cases to the UN’s International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals and to state courts in the Balkans.

Mostly starting in the early 2000s, justice systems in the Balkans began handling war crimes against their own citizens.

Prosecutors in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia have indicted more than 2,800 people and convicted more than 1,000, according to official records and experts. Thousands of cases remain under investigation and many crimes have not been prosecuted — and likely never will be.

“We will never know the number, but we are talking thousands, not hundreds (of war criminals) will walk free,” said Vladimir Petrovic, a historian at Boston University who worked on Yugoslav war crime prosecutions.

The risk that crimes will never be prosecuted appears largest in Serbia, where prosecutions have largely ground to a halt, according to experts.

A monument in a Sarajevo park commemorating children killed in the Bosnian War. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

This is hardly surprising: Serbia supported belligerents in wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Serbian leaders have repeatedly denied culpability and claimed that the international tribunal was biased against Serbs.

“Twenty-seven years after the wars in the former Yugoslavia started, there is little political will to continue the prosecutions,” said Nevenka Tromp-Vrkic, a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam who worked at the international criminal tribunal.

According to the Humanitarian Law Center, a Belgrade-based nongovernmental group monitoring Serbia’s work to process war crimes, Serbian prosecutors have made little progress.

Serbian prosecutors are investigating at least 2,530 cases, including many that relate to the war in Kosovo between 1998 and 1999, the Humanitarian Law Center said in a recent report.

Serbia has pledged to push ahead with prosecutions as part of its bid to become a member of the European Union. But indictments are few and far between. Between Dec. 1, 2017, and June 1, 2018 four indictments were filed, and three of them had been transferred from Bosnia, according to the Humanitarian Law Center.

Tromp-Vrkic said Serbia prosecutes its citizens only under political pressure from outside, in order to receive loans and as a condition to become an EU member. In signing the agreement that ended the war, the Dayton Agreement, the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia also agreed to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

“Internally, there was never great enthusiasm in Serbia to do so,” Tromp-Vrkic said in an email. “The political elites privately resisted it and were doing it pro forma just to please the international community.”

An intersection in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Bosnia, state courts are working through a backlog of war crime cases 23 years after the war ended. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

Now, as Serbia shows reluctance about becoming an EU member, Tromp-Vrkic said there may be even less political will to prosecute war crimes.

Petrovic said the “EU is not pushing for war crimes prosecutions with any particular zeal. Therefore they are likely to sink into complete obscurity, if global and local political circumstances do not change.”

It’s a very different picture in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the majority of the atrocities were committed, most often against Bosnian Muslims.

State courts here are busy working through a backlog of war crime cases, bringing forward aging witnesses who relive allegations of rapes, torture, beatings and killings.

As of last year, about 1,200 war crime cases involving about 5,000 suspects were left to process in Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to a November 2017 report by a human rights commission of the Council of Europe.

But in Bosnia the prosecutions are deeply flawed, critics say. One persistent problem is that prosecutors seem more keen on going after low-ranking soldiers than tackling commanders and politicians.

“There are prosecutors who don’t know their jobs,” said Denis Dzidic, a journalist who covers war trials for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

He said prosecutors have been known to break up complex cases and go after low-ranking individuals to meet quotas. Prosecutors have been required to make as many as five indictments a year, according to one report.

“It’s much easier to find the guy who shot people rather than find the commanders, politicians” who ordered the shooting, he said.

He said another problem is that people who fear prosecution in Bosnia flee to Serbia, which has a policy to not extradite people to Bosnia who face war crime charges. Nor do Croatia and Bosnia extradite alleged war criminals to face charges in the judiciaries of former enemies.

Vukusic said there is “a sense that they would be prosecuting for political reasons.” She said there have been examples of “dubious arrests and shady indictments against former belligerents.” But she said there is regional cooperation between prosecutors, such as evidence and information sharing.

A June 2016 report on prosecutions in Bosnia by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe identified these problems and others, such as inconsistently charging individuals.

Barbora Holá, an international war crime expert at the VU University of Amsterdam, said the shortcomings found in the OSCE report remain problems today.

“The prosecutions are scattered,” she said. “The majority of the prosecutions are of lower-ranking” people.

A monument dedicated to people tortured and killed during the war by Bosian Serb forces after they occupied the neighborhood of Grbavica in Sarajevo. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

Holá has compiled a database of all the cases prosecutors in Bosnia have opened related to the war. In an analysis of cases up to January 2016, she found 586 defendants had faced trial and 412 were convicted.

By far, the majority of cases — 61 percent — were brought against Bosnian Serbs, she found. Bosniaks made up 24 percent of the defendants and Croats 13 percent, she said.

“There are still thousands of open cases,” she said.

She said Bosnian prosecutors have shown an unwillingness to indict suspects on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide, which carry higher legal thresholds but also more severe sentences. Typically, she said, prosecutors opt for a war crime charge.

“With war crimes you can have isolated incidents,” she said. “Legally all you need is a connection to war. When it comes to crimes against humanity, you need to show widespread violations against humans. With genocide, you have to prove intent to destroy a certain group of people. Genocide is the crime of crimes.”

The massacre at Srebrenica remains the only incident classified as genocide during the 1990s wars in the Balkans. More than 8,300 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces.

In Croatia, prosecutions are also slowing down, according to Documenta-Center for Dealing with the Past, a Zagreb-based group that monitors war crime prosecutions in Croatia.

The group said in a report that 23 trials took place in 2017, the fewest since 2005. Previous years saw between 30 and 39 trials take place, the group said.

Still, Croatian prosecutors have not been idle. Maja Munivrana Vajda, a war crimes expert at the University of Zagreb, said Croatian prosecutors initiated proceedings against more than 3,556 people, indicted more than 2,066 individuals and convicted slightly more than 600. Many trials in Croatia, though, have been conducted against defendants in absentia.

For a long time, Croatian politicians were unwilling to acknowledge that Croats could have committed crimes during the war, she said. Over time that changed, partly due to pressure from the EU. As part of its bid to become an EU member, it faced pressured to step up prosecutions. It joined the union in 2013.

But Vajda said a worrisome trend is a rise in acquittals. She said prosecutors say the cases are becoming ever more difficult due to the lapse of time.

She also said there appears to be bias when prosecuting Croats, who tend to be indicted only when murder is involved and not when other war crimes, such as rape and pillage, are committed. By comparison, she said, Serbs are prosecuted not just for the war crime of killing but for less severe forms of war crimes too.

During sentencing, too, there seems to be a bias, she said. In some cases involving Croats, judges have taken into account the defendants’ participation in Croatian armed forces, the climate of fear and post-traumatic stress disorder. These circumstances were almost never taken into consideration in cases involving Serbs, she said.

According to data from the prosecutors’ office, 119 Croats were investigated for war crimes by the end of 2014, resulting in 44 convictions and 36 acquittals. Since then, a few more Croats have been investigated, but Vajda said there are no data saying exactly how many.

Prosecutors’ offices in all three countries did not reply to messages from Courthouse News seeking comment and data.

There is no statute of limitations for war crimes, so until death, thousands of people in the Balkans — many of whom have returned to their normal lives and led crime-free lives — will live with the shadow of their wartime actions and face the possibility of seeing the inside of a courtroom.

“The prosecutions can continue forever,” Holá said.

For Tromp-Vrkic, that would not necessarily be a good thing.

“It almost seems that it would be better to abandon the prosecutions altogether, as it keeps the 1990s alive,” she said.

In the case of Bosnia, which is facing economic and political problems, prosecuting war crimes may deepen divisions between ethnic groups.

“The question is,” said Tromp-Vrkic, “How much justice is enough?”

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