Justice Yet to Be Done - an investigation

Author: Nerma Jelacic and Hugh Griffiths, Sokolac, Sarajevo and The Hague
Uploaded: Wednesday, 30 March, 2005

According to an important investigation published recently by IWPR, the massacre of 46 people in a Bosnian village 12 years ago is a prime example of the kind of cases the newly established local war-crimes court should deal with, in the absence of action by ICTY

‘The men who killed my husband walk around Sokolac freely,’ said Nura Ocuz. ‘They are rich and powerful. They have negotiated openly with international organisations, while no foreigner has interviewed us before. These facts alone make me sceptical about justice here in Bosnia.’ Ocuz is a survivor of the day in September 1992 when local Serb troops entered the village of Novoseoce, located in the Sokolac municipality of the Romanija region, and ordered everyone out of their homes. Forty-five unarmed men and boys from the village and one woman were shot dead. This massacre stands out among many as it is not simply well documented, it is particularly fresh in local people's minds as the bodies of victims were only unearthed four years ago. A number of names of local officials from the civilian local government and military forces who had control over the area at the time keep recurring. Yet as Ocuz notes bitterly, not one person has been indicted for the crime.

The Hague tribunal will not be taking any more new cases as it winds down its work over the next few years. Instead, local courts are being set up in Balkan states. A new War Crimes Chamber (WCC) has been created within the State Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The chamber will have the jurisdiction to take over the unresolved cases from The Hague as well as draw its own indictments. Now that the WCC is in business – it was launched on 9 March - Nura Ocuz's prayers to see the men responsible for the murder of her husband and son face questioning and trial could yet be answered. With significant casualty numbers, witnesses to the crime, and possible indictees still on the loose, Novoseoce typifies the kind of cases that will provide the WCC with much of its work.

There is always the possibility the Novoseoce case will not be brought to trial, at least not immediately. The new court will have many demands placed on it: it must first to handle the caseload devolved from the Hague; and its selection of new cases has to appear fair in terms of ethnic and geographical distribution. Finally, there is the sheer volume of substantial new cases that the WCC must prioritise and pick from.

WCC prosecutors have told IWPR that when it comes to raising new indictments, they will prioritise cases from regions not previously dealt with by the Hague tribunal. That could raise the chances that Novoseoce will be given priority. ‘I can't imagine that the courts in Bosnia or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia will be able to try all - or the majority - of those who committed war crimes,’ Judith Armatta, an analyst who has followed war crimes trials on behalf of the International Coalition for Justice, told IWPR. ‘The sheer numbers and inadequate resources of the recovering country mean that many will walk free and [remain] unaccountable,’ she said.

The name Novoseoce has figured in Hague proceedings, even if it did not constitute a discrete case. The amended indictment against Momčilo Krajišnik, a senior figure in the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), lists a number of incidents involving killings in parts of Bosnia where he held influence. ‘In the village of Novoseoce, approximately 44 non-Serb men were killed,’ says one of the terse entries.

Survivors are keenly aware of Krajišnik's involvement in events in the area as the war got under way, yet they also want to see local leaders who they claim implemented ethnic cleansing in the Sokolac municipality generally, and permitted the massacre at Novoseoce in particular, brought to account. ‘Hague investigators never interviewed us - the witnesses - about what happened,’ former Novoseoce resident Munira Selmanović, whose husband and son died in the massacre, told IWPR.

IWPR has traced events leading up to and including the massacre of 22 September 1992 by collecting evidence and eyewitness accounts. The body of information strongly suggests that a role in allowing the killings to take place was played by the Sokolac municipality ‘crisis staff’, a civilian/military local government structure of the kind replicated across the Bosnian Serb region. The crisis staff controlled local military forces and was the sole executive authority in the area it ran.

The Novoseoce massacre can be viewed in the context of the systematic removal of Muslim civilians elsewhere around Sokolac – the village was in fact the last in the Romanija region to undergo ‘ethnic cleansing’. Since the women, elderly and children of the village were forcibly displaced, they fall into this category. Again, the crisis staff played a central part.

Of the three key actors in the Sokolac crisis staff, one, Radislav Krstić, is serving a jail term for another war-crimes conviction, and a second, Milan Tupajić, could not be contacted despite IWPR's best efforts to track him down. The third former official, Milovan Bjelica, vehemently denies his own complicity and that of Tupajić in the killings at Novoseoce.

But evidence obtained by IWPR about the institutional role of the crisis staff in Sokolac, and its activities before and during the events of 1992, indicate that it was monitoring and managing the Bosnian Serb leadership's policies on the ground, and that it was thus in a position to know what was going on and prevent abuses from happening. Many questions are raised but none has yet been answered in a court of law.

Executing Karadžić's Policies

In 1991, Novoseoce came under the control of a crisis staff set up in Sokolac, the main town of the municipality. The executive would rule Sokolac during the early stages of the war. Crisis staffs were an institution originally created by Yugoslav leader Josip Tito during the Cold War to act as local coordinating bodies for ‘territorial defence’ – a strategy for waging all-out war on foreign invaders using locally-raised guerrillas as well as regular troops. As the conflict in Bosnia got under way, leaders in the Serb-held areas - headed by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić now an indicted war crimes suspect - resurrected the crisis staff structure to bring local civil government and military affairs under one roof. They were transformed into mono-ethnic bodies dominated by members of Karadžić's SDS, and took orders from the emerging ‘Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina’ with its headquarters in Pale.

The senior officials were commonly structured as a triumvirate, mirroring the body's triple civil affairs-military-political role, with one local government leader such as the municipality head, a military man, and an SDS representative who was the key link with Pale and the conduit for policy directives. Crisis staff members were responsible for everything from employmen

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