Background Briefing


On July 1, 2003, the Serbian National Assembly adopted a law establishing a specialized war crimes chamber to prosecute and investigate crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law as defined in Serbian law.4 The legislation established a War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade and provided for creation of a war crimes panel within the Belgrade District Court. The chamber consists of two panels of three judges each selected from the Belgrade District Court or seconded from other courts, and two investigative judges. The president of the Belgrade District Court is also president of the War Crimes Chamber. The law also established a specialized war crimes investigation service within the Interior Ministry to act on requests of the prosecutor for war crimes. Because war crimes and organized crime cases frequently involve a large number of defendants, the ordinary courtrooms in Belgrade could not accommodate them. New high-tech courtrooms were created with the assistance of the US government. The War Crimes Chamber’s first trial, the Ovcara case, began on March 9, 2004.

In the nearly four years since the War Crimes Chamber began its work, indictments have been issued in six cases and three trials have been completed. The first, the “Ovcara” case, involved 16 defendants implicated in abducting and killing 200 non-Serbs in Vukovar, Croatia, in November 1991. The defendants were charged with war crimes against prisoners of war under the Serbian Criminal Code. The War Crimes Chamber convicted 14 of the defendants and acquitted two. The Supreme Court in December 2006 ordered a retrial on appeal, which began in March 2007.5

A second case, against former Kosovo Liberation Army member Anton Lekaj, resulted in a war crimes conviction on September 18, 2006. In that case, the defendant was accused of illegal imprisonment, killing, torture, rape, inhuman treatment, and inflicting injuries on members of the non-Albanian ethnic community (Roma) in a hotel basement in Djakovica, Kosovo. The defendant was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment. The conviction was upheld on appeal on April 5, 2007.

On April 11, 2007, the War Crimes Chamber completed a third case, the “Scorpion” case in which five former members of the Scorpion paramilitary unit were charged with killing six Bosnian Muslim civilians from Srebrenica in Godinjska Bara, Bosnia. The crimes became notorious when a videotape surfaced during Slobodan Milosevic’s ICTY trial showing the defendants smoking cigarettes and taunting the Bosnian Muslims (some of whom were bound and barefoot) before loading them onto a truck and then lining them up in front of a ditch and shooting them in the back. Four of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from five to twenty years. The prosecutor is appealing the acquittal of one defendant, Aleksander Vukov, and the five-year sentence handed down against another, Aleksander Medic.6

Ongoing cases include one against seven men on charges of forcibly expelling 1,822 civilians from the villages of Skocic and Kozluk (near Zvornik, Bosnia) to Hungary and of killing 19 civilians near Zvornik, between May and July 1992. This is the first case transferred from the ICTY to the War Crimes Chamber while it was in the investigation stage. It is also a case in which Bosnian and Serbian authorities are working together to locate witnesses. A trial has also begun in the “Suva Reka” case in which eight police officers and former members of the Serbian State Security Service are charged with war crimes and violations of the Geneva Conventions in relation to the deaths of 48 members of two Albanian families in Suva Reka, Kosovo, on March 26, 1999. Indictments have been issued in the “Bitici brothers” case in which two former members of the Police Special Purpose Units are charged with war crimes against prisoners of war for allegedly taking part in the July 1999 murder of three Kosovo Albanian brothers who had US citizenship.

4 Law on the Organization and Jurisdiction of Government Authorities in Prosecuting Perpetrators of War Crimes, Sluzbeni glasnik Republike Srbije (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia), No. 67/2003, July 1, 2003.

5 Two others are being tried individually in separate trials for crimes in Ovcara, and a third suspect was arrested in Norway in December 2006 and is expected to be extradited to Serbia soon.

6 “Appeal against the Scorpions verdict soon to be filed by the Prosecutor,” Republic of Serbia War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office press release, April 10, 2007, (accessed May 8, 2007).