Serbia’s as-yet-unpublished draft war crimes prosecution strategy for the next five years – a copy of which has been obtained by BIRN – has attracted criticism from human rights groups that allege the document does not properly address the country’s continuing failure to prosecute high-level suspects.
Other flaws in the draft strategy for 2018-2023 include a lack of concrete deadlines and indicators for measuring whether goals have been achieved, rights groups that have seen the document claimed.
“The draft does not offer solutions for key shortcomings in the work of the war crime prosecutor’s office,” said Visnja Sijacic, a legal analyst at the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC.
The draft was presented by chief war crimes prosecutor Snezana Stanojkovic at a closed meeting on March 12, which was attended by the HLC and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.
The prosecutor’s strategy is meant to expand on the national strategy on war crimes for 2016-2020, and to clearly outline what the war crimes prosecution office will do.
Its adoption is also envisioned by Serbia’s 2016 action plan for Chapter 23 in its negotiations to join the EU – the chapter relating to the judiciary and fundamental rights.
However the draft suggests a lack of clarity on solving key problems that have hampered war crimes prosecutions in Serbia, according to the two NGOs that attended the meeting.
Stepping back from commitments?
|Belgrade Higher Court. Photo: BIRN.|
Currently there are 53 defendants standing trial in 19 cases before the Belgrade Higher Court and the Appeals Court. A total of 42 cases have been completed, with 72 people convicted and 43 acquitted.
The major ongoing trials are for the murder of 1,300 Bosniaks from Srebrenica in the village of Kravica in 1995, the massacre of around 120 Albanians in the village of Cuska in 1999, and the murder of 70 Croatian civilians in the village of Lovas in 1991.
However, most cases are against one or a handful of low-ranking defendants and deal with crimes with a small number of victims.
The national strategy on war crimes for 2016-2020 envisioned that the prosecutor’s strategy will “define the criteria for the selection of cases and create a list of priority cases to be processed”.
The national strategy suggested that more complex cases should have priority, outlining criteria that include the number of victims, the rank of the perpetrators and the availability of evidence.
Instead of elaborating on this, however, the prosecution’s draft strategy merely lists the criteria laid out in the older document – and takes a step back from them.
“With full respect to the proposed criteria for determining priorities… we recall that all cases handled by the War Crimes Prosecutor’s office fall in the category of ‘especially complex,’” the draft says.
According to the document, the criteria listed in the national strategy will now be secondary, while the primary criteria will be “the interests of the criminal proceedings”.
“What is the ‘interest’ of the proceedings? No definition is given,” said Natasa Nikolic, a lawyer at the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.
Ultimately, the document says, the criteria will be defined later, in agreement with the national public prosecutor.
“When you set it up like that, that could mean anything,” Nikolic said.
Sijacic also argued that the draft strategy does not adequately address how the war crimes prosecutor will implement the criteria laid out in the national strategy.
She argued that the “most obvious” flaw is the absence of criteria for determining which cases should have priority.
This raises concerns because in recent years, the war crimes prosecution has only pursued “less demanding” cases – isolated wartime crimes with fewer victims – and no high-ranking suspects, she said.
Progress indicators unclear
The national strategy clearly stated that the prosecutor’s strategy “should contain the indicators of the results of the strategy’s application”.
However, the recently-presented draft says that evaluation will follow the indicators “laid out in the national strategy”, although it remains unclear what this refers to.
Sijacic argued that the draft fails to name a single indicator, such as an increased number of guilty verdicts or indictments raised against high-ranking officials, for example.
She said the text does not clearly identify what the prosecution is setting out to achieve, or deadlines for achieving its goals.
The prosecution is meant to define a five-year plan for investigations, but not even a deadline for this has been set, she added.
“The strategy is methodologically flawed; it doesn’t lay out the activities, the deadlines, or even the indicators by which the success of its implementation will be measured,“ she said.
BIRN sent the war crimes prosecutor’s office questions about the lack of deadlines and other issues regarding the strategy, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
NGOs that attended the strategy’s presentation said they were told that the lack of deadlines will be addressed once Serbia’s action plan for Chapter 23 is revised, which is due by May.
‘Touchy’ questions deflected
Serbia’s 2016 action plan for its Chapter 23 negotiations with the EU envisioned that the draft war crimes prosecution strategy would be presented at an “experts’ meeting”, and did not require the media to be present or even informed about it.
The meeting, held on March 12, was attended by representatives of the Justice Ministry, Ministry for EU Integration, the Attorney General’s office, the Appeals Court, the Bar Association and the OSCE, police and army intelligence services and other state bodies as well as the two NGOs.
However, Sijacic claimed that the meeting was only a “simulation of a discussion”, and that critical voices were hushed.
“Whenever the questions were a little more complicated or ‘touchy’, we were told to send our comments in written form,“ Sijacic said.
Nikolic also said that anyone who wanted to make a critical observation was asked to put it in writing and send it to the prosecutor’s office by March 14, the deadline for sending proposals for amending the draft.
The HLC submitted a 15-page proposal for amendments to the draft, but Nikolic said that the NGOs do not know “whether anything will be changed in the next month or two, when the strategy should be adopted”.