Background Briefing

Witness Support

One major challenge the court faces is getting witnesses from Bosnia, Croatia, or Kosovo to come to Serbia to testify. Witnesses from outside Serbia are under no obligation to testify in Serbia. Given the lack of trust the wars engendered, it is extremely difficult to convince people to come to Belgrade at the court’s request: an invitation from a Serbian institution is generally seen as unwelcome by non-Serbs, particularly Kosovo Albanians. Without the intervention of the Humanitarian Law Center, a Belgrade-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), it is doubtful victims living outside Serbia would be prepared to cooperate with the court. The Humanitarian Law Center has been able to assist in the proceedings due to the reputation it developed for impartiality in documenting war crimes and the trust it has established with victims outside of Serbia. In addition to ensuring witnesses’ participation in proceedings, the Humanitarian Law Center represents victims in court, provides psychological support during their stay in Serbia, and obtains important additional evidence and witnesses in furtherance of the prosecutor’s ongoing investigations.

As the court establishes its credibility, the negative attitude many victims have about coming to Serbia may change. For example, the families of victims in the Ovcara case initially had a good experience with the War Crimes Chamber and spoke publicly and favorably about it in Croatia. The Bosnian war crimes prosecutor’s office also noted that initially victims in Bosnia expressed concerns for their safety and were unwilling to cooperate with the Belgrade War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office. However, the Bosnian prosecutor’s office has been able to work with Serbian authorities to ensure witness safety. They have arranged for testimony to be taken via videolink in the preliminary stages of an investigation. This is often followed by an in-person interview conducted by a Serbian investigative judge at the Bosnian prosecutor’s office.7

The court is also making an affirmative effort to be more hospitable to witnesses coming to testify from outside Serbia. Sinisa Vazic, president of the War Crimes Chamber, initiated the establishment of a Victim and Witness Unit. It consists of, as one official put it, “two nice ladies” taken from other departments who did not initially have any particular witness support skills but could help witnesses get to court.8 They make travel arrangements for witnesses, meet them at the airport or train station, and help them get to their hotel or to court. They work closely with the Humanitarian Law Center. The members of the unit have been to The Hague for training at the ICTY. Ideally, the unit would have some sort of psychological support available for victim witnesses, but it is not possible at the moment due to budgetary constraints. Nonetheless, the response so far to this unit from the victims has been very positive.9

Beyond the lack of psychological support, the unit faces other challenges. First, though the unit was provided for in the law establishing the court, it has no budget. The United States donated $17,000, which enables the unit to buy tickets for witnesses and cover travel expenses, but it does not allow the unit to provide other support for victim-witnesses or to have a remote office closer to where the victims are mainly located. Another limitation the unit faces is that it can only help when a witness is called to court; it is unable to assist with witnesses during investigations. The Bosnian War Crimes Chamber has been able to establish a better model for witness assistance since it has a Registry capable of assisting all witnesses, be they for the defense, the prosecution, or the court, at all stages of the proceedings.

The overarching challenge the court faces is gaining the trust of victim-witnesses from outside Serbia. Although progress had been made in developing trust with Bosnian witnesses, that progress was undermined recently with the War Crimes Chamber’s decision in the Scorpions case. In its ruling from the bench, the chamber indicated that there was no evidence that the victims were from Srebrenica, despite the fact that several relatives of the victims from Srebrenica testified to being separated from the victims during the events on July 11. This finding, which completely contradicted the Bosnian victims’ testimony, was seen as particularly humiliating by the witnesses who viewed the court as “the same as during the Milosevic time.”10 The victims were also disappointed with the five-year sentence given to one defendant (viewing it as too lenient) and with the acquittal of another (see above).11 The chamber had also followed the International Court of Justice ruling on Bosnia’s case against Serbia for violating the Genocide Convention, which held that Serbian organs did not directly take part in the genocide at Srebrenica and that the Scorpions were not de jure organs of Serbia in mid-1995. By following this reasoning, the court’s ruling has the effect of denying the victims the opportunity to seek compensation for their suffering in civil actions against Serbia.

7 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with counsel at prosecutor’s office of Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 23, 2007.

8 Human Rights Watch interview with War Crimes Chamber official, Belgrade, March 30, 2007.

9 Ibid.

10 Human Rights Watch interview with Natasa Kandic, head of the Humanitarian Law Center, New York, June 11, 2007.

11 Ibid.