Background Briefing

Witness Protection

When the War Crimes Chamber was established, Serbian law did not include witness protection measures. Indeed, pursuant to Serbian criminal procedure law, the judge read the home address of each witness before examining the witness. This was problematic in the initial attempts at war crimes prosecutions that took place in ordinary courts.12

The 2003 law establishing the War Crimes Chamber included a provision allowing the court to protect the personal information of a victim or witness. However, a law to provide more comprehensive witness protection was not enacted until January 1, 2006. The new “Law on the Program to Protect Parties to Criminal Proceedings” provides for a set of measures to protect the life, health, physical integrity, liberty or property of a person, suspect, defendant, witness, injured party, expert, or a person related to any of these, before and during a trial and after its termination. The law allows for witness relocation, changing of identities, and use of pseudonyms.

These measures have been put into effect. Pseudonyms have been used for 10 witnesses so far in the Zvornik case, though more than one observer suggested that pseudonyms have limited value in Serbia and Bosnia, as the defendants and people closely following the case know who the witnesses are since they are often from small towns.13 Pseudonyms provide protection from public curiosity but cannot completely protect a witness from identification. Apart from pseudonyms, a special screened booth has been set up in the courtroom to shield protected witnesses’ identities. Witnesses who refuse to come to Belgrade have also been able to testify via videolink.

In addition to these measures inside the courtroom, a professional Witness Protection Unit has been created within the Interior Ministry for witnesses in criminal matters in Serbia, including war crimes cases. This unit was trained by U.S. Marshals who have been responsible for administering witness protection in the United States since the U.S. Witness Security Program began in 1971. By all accounts, the Serbian Witness Protection Unit is running quite professionally and is well regarded internationally. This unit protects witnesses in war crimes cases when they are in Serbia. The unit has also successfully relocated witnesses outside of Serbia on both a temporary and permanent basis in other sensitive criminal cases. Regional cooperation on these matters has gone well.

However, the unit lacks money and vehicles.14 The staff is underpaid. The unit faces other challenges as well: in cases where the accused are members of the police, it may be difficult for protected witnesses to have confidence in police protection. This is particularly true in situations in which the protected witness is a former police officer himself who is cooperating with the prosecution. One such witness was thought of by police as a “traitor” and was not comfortable in protective custody in Serbia. Eventually the ICTY called the person as a protected witness in another trial and he was able to leave the country safely.15

Ultimately, witness safety will to some degree depend on a greater shift in attitudes about the importance of these prosecutions. Greater public support by Serbia’s leaders for war crimes trials would help both encourage witnesses to come forward and keep those who testify safe from retaliation.

12 See Human Rights Watch, Justice at Risk: War Crimes Trials in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro, vol. 16, no. 7(D), October 2004,, pp. 21-22.

13 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with staff member from Bosnian War Crimes Chamber, May 24, 2007.

14 Human Rights Watch interview with U.S. government official, Belgrade, March 30, 2007.

15 Human Rights Watch interview with civil society member, Belgrade, March 29, 2007.