bosnia report
New Series No: 35 August - September 2003
Questionable Procedures
by Milanka Saponja-Hadžic, Belgrade


I - Belgrade to fund Hague suspects


A scheme by the government of Serbia and Montenegro to help the families of war crimes suspects held in The Hague has enraged human rights groups and victim support organizations. Under the plan, put forward by Serbia and Montenegro's Council of Ministers on 29 May, people who surrender to the tribunal voluntarily will get an annual allowance of 10,000 Euro. Suspects themselves will get a monthly stipend of 200 Euro while in detention, and the remaining 7,600 Euro will go towards travel expenses so that three members of each family can visit them every second month until the trials are complete.

The government clearly thought it was acting to facilitate cooperation with the tribunal, and no doubt also wanted to appease nationalist sentiments which remain opposed to the Hague process. ‘I strongly support this decision, because I think we must do everything in order to meet our obligations to The Hague,’ said Serbia and Montenegro foreign minister Goran Svilanović.

Electoral considerations

Rasim Ljajić, minister for minorities of Serbia and Montenegro, said that although many in the government were critical of the plan, ministers had ultimately voted for it because they knew it would play well with the electorate. ‘The decision was not unanimous. Various opinions were expressed,’ he said. ‘But if the government had not agreed to it, it would have risked alienating the majority of Serbia's population which is still against cooperation with The Hague.’

For many outside the government the announcement came as a shock, at a time when the country seemed to be finally acting to redress the wrongs committed in its name. Several judges were critical of the decision, saying it was time the government made up its mind whether the perpetrators of war crimes were criminals or heroes.

While human rights groups are pleased that Belgrade wants to cooperate with the tribunal, news of the deal infuriated them. Together with victim support groups and some of the judiciary, they alleged that the authorities were assisting those who may be responsible for war crimes while ignoring the victims. ‘Instead of working to reveal the identity of those who perpetrated and ordered the crimes, and instead of providing compensation to the victims, the state has decided to reward those indicted by the international court,’ said a statement issued by the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade. ‘The Council of Ministers decision is an assault on the dignity of the victims of the war crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and on their families.’ The law centre, which been supportive of official efforts to cooperate with the tribunal, demanded that the decision be revoked because it was tantamount to the state protecting those guilty of the ‘most severe crimes against humanity’.

Collaboration in war crimes

Some of the most vocal criticism came from those representing family members of Muslims who were abducted in 1992-93 from the villages of Sjeverin and Strpce in the Sandžak region of south-west Serbia. The families have been searching for their loved ones ever since, and have received no assistance from the state. Velija Murić, who is head of the Montenegrin Legal Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and has been representing the families of the disappeared in Sandžak, said the aid scheme was tantamount to ‘government collaboration in war crimes’. ‘This decision can only have negative effects, because it will discourage all democratic efforts for reconciliation among the peoples of former Yugoslavia,’ she said.

Several other non-government organizations in Montenegro expressed outrage. At an emergency meeting they issued a joint statement demanding compensation for the families of the Sandžak victims. ‘These people should be fairly compensated for their losses... They deserve the greatest respect from the state, and the government should show them it. The state has provided no assistance to victims of armed conflicts.’

Women in Black, a well-known women's group which staged anti-war demonstrations throughout the 1990s, said that while it understood the government's motives, it was wrong to ask the public to foot the bill to cover the needs of war crimes suspects. It called on the government not only to reverse the decision, but to set up a fund to compensate the victims of war. ‘Wouldn't it be more rational, courageous and just if the government set up a special fund by selling off all the property that war profiteers obtained illegally, and using it to help the victims and their families?’ said Staša Zajević, the head of Women in Black.

Mirko Tepavac, a member of the Forum for International Relations, an advocacy group trying to ease Serbia's path towards European Union accession, described the compensation scheme as ‘shameful’ - and also unnecessary. ‘The government did this without there being any obvious need. No one was calling for it,’ he said. ‘It's just a way for them to win over a few more votes - and it's wrong.’

This article appeared in IWPR's Tribunal Update No. 317, 17 June 2003. See




II - Plea-bargaining at Hague sends confusing messages about war-crimes accountability.


The Hague Tribunal has often had a rocky ride in Serbia, with some officials and hard-line military men rejecting wholesale the idea that war crimes were committed, and that a foreign court should extradite and try Serbs. But now some lawyers in Serbia and Montenegro are criticizing the tribunal for allowing plea-bargaining, which they say dilutes the impact of war crimes trials.

Hague prosecutors heralded as a breakthrough the guilty pleas filed by former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavšić in October last year, and more recently by two Bosnian Serb army officers accused of participating in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Some victims' groups also welcomed the admissions of guilt, saying this gave them some recognition of their suffering.

But these guilty pleas came at a price. In both trials, the defendants used plea-bargaining to get serious charges of genocide against them dropped. Plavšić received what many believed was an exceptionally light sentence of 11 years, which she is now serving in a Swedish prison. The two Bosnian Serb commanders, Momir Nikolić and Dragan Obrenović, admitted guilt on lesser charges and agreed to give evidence against two other officers indicted in the same case. They are awaiting sentencing hearings, and can expect to receive shorter prison terms than if they had been convicted of genocide.

Prosecutor’s hope

The tribunal hoped the guilty pleas would have the greatest impact in Serbia, where there has been resistance to the principle of war crimes trials and a reluctance to face up to Belgrade's role in the bloodshed in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said she hoped the Srebrenica officers' admissions would help establish the truth about what happened in Bosnia, and contribute to the process of reconciliation.

The Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade agreed, saying the public in Serbia could now start coming to terms with the atrocities committed in the name of the Serb people, and that the withdrawal of genocide charges did not diminish the men's responsibility for the terrible crimes they committed. ‘Through this act Nikolić and Obrenović are helping their people face the truth,’ said a statement issued by the law centre. ‘Coming to terms with the dark legacy of the past can be achieved by taking responsibility for the crimes committed against the victims of Srebrenica, mankind's greatest shame.’

But others in the liberal wing of Serbia's legal establishment have expressed serious misgivings about what effect reducing the charges against alleged war criminals will have on an already sceptical public. Liberal Belgrade lawyers say that although they understand the pragmatic motives for brokering plea agreements, they do not approve of them. Such deals do not make for justice, and do little to help Serbia face up to its responsibility, they say. ‘The deal helps the court to pass a sentence more easily, but justice cannot be served this way,’ IWPR was told by Belgrade lawyer Jovan Buturović. ‘The only proper solution is to have a serious trial, to exhibit evidence and hear the defence, and assess the level of the indictee's responsibility.’ Buturović warned that ‘a plea that forms part of a deal could be false, a way of covering up something or somebody. And that is always done at the expense of the victims.’

The legal establishment's suspicion of plea-bargaining stems in part from their being accustomed to the continental legal system, which does not employ the practice. The tribunal's procedures are derived from a combination of both the continental and common-law legal systems, and makes provision for plea agreements. Milan Popović, a law professor in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, said that many in Serbia and Montenegro perceive the guilty pleas not as true expressions of guilt, but simply as individuals trying to cut the best deal for themselves. ‘People are pleading guilty simply in a bid to get more lenient sentences, otherwise they wouldn't do it,’ he said. ‘I am afraid that double standards are being applied. That does not help us face up to the past, but only strengthens resentment,’ he added.

Plavšić the driving spirit

The relatives of victims and anti-war activists have taken an even stronger stand against the practice. ‘By pleading guilty, Plavšić did not bring into question the state policy that led towards the extinction of the Bosnian people, in which she played an important role,’ said Sefko Alomerović, the president of the Helsinki Board in Sandžak. According to Alomerović, Plavšić played an important role in the Bosnian Serb scheme to remove the Muslim population: ‘She was the driving spirit behind the plan.’ By letting the Bosnian Serb leader off with a relatively lenient sentence, the tribunal has ‘made fun of the victims and of an institution that should protect justice. No one, not even the court, should have the right to do that.’

Ramiz Crnisanin, another lawyer from Sandžak, agrees with Alomerović. ‘Plavšić was no accidental accomplice in the genocidal politics that led to murders and looting,’ he said. ‘I understand the sympathy the court showed because of her age. But what about those to whom she did not show the slightest pity?’

Those legal experts who have come out in support of the tribunal have in the past been swimming against the tide, and have risked being labelled traitors by their more conservatively minded peers. The use of plea-bargaining now appears to be undermining their faith in the Hague process - and they form a constituency whom the tribunal desperately needs to have on board if the process of meting out international justice is to work.

This article appeared in IWPR'S Tribunal Update No. 321, 24 July 2003. See


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