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Balkans: Local Courts Currently Unprepared to Try War Crimes

Domestic war crimes trials in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are marred by ethnic bias, poor case preparation, and other factors, Human Rights Watch said today. With the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal scheduled to finish investigations by the end of the year, many war crimes prosecutions remain to be heard in courts in the former Yugoslavia that, as a rule, are ill-equipped to handle them.

“Setting up specialized war crimes chambers—as they have done in these three countries—is a good thing, but there will still be hundreds of cases in Croatia and Bosnia that will need to be tried by ordinary local courts,” explained Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. “In local courts, we see bias against ethnic minorities, intimidation of witnesses, and police stonewalling investigations.”

In a new, 31-page report, “Justice at Risk: War Crimes Trials in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro,” Human Rights Watch examines domestic war crimes trials that have taken place since 2000 for crimes committed during the armed conflicts of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. Human Rights Watch has also monitored various of these trials.

The report concludes that cases before ordinary courts in particular suffer from:

  • ethnic bias on the part of judges and prosecutors,
  • poor case preparation by prosecutors,
  • inadequate cooperation by the police with investigations,
  • poor cooperation between states on judicial matters,
  • a lack of witness protection mechanisms, and
  • uncertainty on prosecuting command responsibility.

In Serbia and Montenegro, all war crimes cases will be tried by the Belgrade district court’s special war crimes chamber. Serbian courts have conducted few war crimes trials. Only the Belgrade district court has jurisdiction to try war crimes cases.

“It is up to the governments of the three countries, with the assistance of the European Commission, to address these problems, not only to advance the rule of law, but also if the countries are interested in becoming EU members,” said Dicker. “All states that have supported the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal also have a real interest in successful local court prosecutions.”

Human Rights Watch explained that respect for the rule of law and human rights is a fundamental condition for the countries of the Western Balkans to progress towards EU membership.

As part of its completion strategy, the Yugoslav tribunal is scheduled to end investigations this year, trials by 2008, and appeals by 2010. Recently, the tribunal’s prosecutor moved to refer cases back to the courts in Croatia and Bosnia as part of that strategy.

Human Rights Watch urged the governments in the former Yugoslavia to improve the quality of domestic war crimes trials by implementing witness protection mechanisms, cooperating at the state level on war crimes prosecutions, training judges and prosecutors, and providing support and protection for them.

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