Global Policy Forum

Bosnia to Open Own War Crimes Court


By Daria Sito-Sucic

March 6, 2005

The freshly-painted orange building housing Bosnia's new War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo used to be a barracks. A decade ago it held prisoners of war in a maze of gloomy rooms and winding corridors. Now the shell-scarred facade is repaired and inside are hi-tech courtrooms with digital audio-video equipment to record and present evidence in trials covering genocide, rape and torture by wartime rival Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Some of Europe's worst crimes since World War Two were committed in the 1992-95 Bosnian war that claimed up to 200,000 lives. Most cases so far have been tried by the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

The Sarajevo Chamber, opening on March 9, will take over some of the suspects indicted by the U.N. tribunal in what Bosnia's Western backers hope is a sign the country is able to deal with the legacy of its bloody past. "By showing itself willing and ready to handle these cases, Bosnia has underlined that crimes committed in this territory can be tried here, should be tried here and should not be sent to a foreign country," said top peace overseer Paddy Ashdown. It has taken Bosnia the 10 years since the end of the war to fulfil conditions set by the international community to conduct high-level trials -- it built facilities, passed legislation and educated specialised staff.

The hard part will still be convincing locals that this court is impartial, unlike The Hague which Bosnian Serbs -- whose territory makes up half of Bosnia along with the Muslim-Croat Federation -- see as biased against them. There have already been protests. Last year a Bosnian Serb group tried to put up a memorial plaque on the building to commemorate victims of what they said was a "wartime Muslim prison for Sarajevo Serbs" but were stopped by police.

No Accused

The 20 million euro refurbishment has endowed the building with facilities rivalling those of the Hague court. Special technology will be used to distort the image and voice of protected witnesses, and an elevator will take suspects to the courtroom directly from the detention unit. Five teams of prosecutors will handle war crimes cases transferred from The Hague and potential cases against thousands of suspects charged by local courts.

"This court will be under much more of a burden than the Hague tribunal," said court manager Tarik Abdulhak. The U.N. tribunal, under pressure to cease operations in 2010, wants to transfer some mid- and low-ranking cases to national courts and focus on major suspects from the 1990s Balkan wars.

It is currently debating the transfer of two major war crimes cases to Bosnia -- against Zeljko Meakic and three other Bosnian Serbs accused of crimes in detention camps in northwest Bosnia and against Bosnian Serb Radovan Stankovic over crimes in the eastern town of Foca. A third case is on the list. "I don't see a single reason for the Hague tribunal not to decide to hand over the cases to Bosnia," State Prosecutor Marinko Jurcevic told Reuters. "We have met all terms and standards".

In most of the cases filed by local courts, however, the evidence and victims are in Bosnia while the suspected perpetrators live in neighbouring ex-Yugoslav countries, holding dual citizenship. "I am sceptical that these states will give up part of their national sovereignty and hand over citizens," said Jurcevic. There was no agreement yet between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro on the handover of war crimes suspects, and that needed to be arranged soon, he noted. "Justice must be done in the place where the crime was committed," he said. "Only in that way can we have justice and bring about reconciliation between peoples in Bosnia and also reconciliation with neighbouring countries".

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