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Helsinki Charter No. 115-116

January - February 2008


Law and Justice


By Bojana Oprijan Ilic

Until verdicts for war crimes are not passed and become undisputable and effective, many in Serbia will be beating their patriotic chests, the Radicals' ratings will be higher and higher, and crimes will retain the form of an ideology.

"Justice is slow but reachable," say enthusiasts and optimists. "There are no such things as law and justice," say those whose lives have been stamped by war atrocities over the past two decades but also by the ongoing global politics. You can hardly tell that either of the two groups reasons wrongly. For, apart from the facts of life, you can present no other solid evidence.

We witness how long and thorny, and above all how uncertain the road to justice is. The same as in the tribunal in The Hague, the trials of the accused of war crimes before the War Crimes Chamber in Belgrade take years. Many from that clique of executioners such as the most infamous indictees Karadzic, Mladic, Zupljanin or Hadzic, however, are still runaways from courts of law and proceedings. Final and effective verdicts to those in the dock are still postponed due to complex procedures or obvious obstruction of proceedings.

Not long ago, when a journalist and analyst for the Vreme weekly presented at the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights' round table a possible scenario for Vojislav Seselj's comeback, every serious participant must have gone home really concerned. "Since The Hague Tribunal is a 'bankrupt company' for its limited duration and since Seselj has been detained for six years now, one cannot rule out the possibility of his relatively soon return to Serbia where he would ceremoniously welcomed by the Radicals and their followers," said journalist Dejan Anastasijevic, a witness for the prosecution in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic in the ICTY.

"EXPERT IN GENERAL PRACTICE" - The process against the leader of the Radicals is ongoing, the strong rhetoric of the defendant is unabated, the same as his skill for turning the courtroom into a political forum by the use of well-known methods of switched theses and denouncement of witnesses. For instance, in late February the military expert for the prosecution, Rejno Tunens, was providing evidence of Seselj's connections with volunteers in the battlefields in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He quoted the documents whereby the leader of the Radicals had proclaimed 16 "Chetnik commanders" "dukes" for their ""exceptional wartime merits." Among the promoted, detailed Tunens, were the leader of the Radicals' volunteers in Vukovar, Milan /Stony/ Lancuzanin, and Srecko Radovanovic, who had been in command of volunteers in Western Slavonija. To this Seselj remarked that both Aleksic and Lancuzanin were born in the regions in which they fought and that it was not the Serbian Radical Party, they joined later on, that sent them to battlefields. But he "omitted" to say that the para-military formation called "Left Dishwasher" had been helmed by his Radicals - the fact that was asserted in the trial for the Ovcara case before the War Crimes Chamber in Belgrade.

While cross-examining witness Ivo Tomic, French expert in Slavic cultures, in February Seselj denied the authenticity of his testimony and claimed he was "not competent to testify about the Greater Serbia ideology." In the style of "an expert in general practice" the defendant claimed that Tomic "was not an intellectual nor a scholar" since he failed to provide him an "explicit answer to the question about the first advocate of the Greater Serbia, but just mentioned that the term was documented for the first time in late 17th century."

The Seselj trial opened on November 7, 2007. He had given himself up on February 23, 2004 with all the media pomp. He is indicted of prosecution, killing, torture, deportation, forceful replacement, cruelty, plunder and ruthless destruction of villages in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as of expulsion of Croats from the Srem village of Hrtkovci in the period 1991-93. The defendant himself was postponing the opening of the trial by placing a variety of requests for translation of trial documentation from Latin into Cyrillic alphabet, for a typewriter or another interpreter.

In early February new representatives of the Prosecution turned up in the courtroom - actually, after the testimony by witness Ivo Tomic they replaced Prosecutor Christina Dahl. The Prosecution is now represented by Darryl Mandis and Lisa Birsey. Asked whether the prosecutors in the trial of Vojislav Seselj had been replaced, the PR for the Prosecution, Olga Kavran, said Mandis and Birsey were "added to the team" led by Prosecutor Dahl. The reasons for this "staff reshuffle" remained unknown to the public.

SOBERING IS NOT IN SIGHT - Though the Seselj trial has not been in the focus of public attention for long - and not even of the political marketing of his followers - one can hardly say that the Radicals' ideology is "in the back seat." Namely, the Serbian Radical Party is by itself still the strongest party in Serbia, which - along with the support to it by some other ruling and opposition parties - has to do with (non)impunity for the runaway indictees from The Hague justice.

On the other hand, domestic War Crimes Chamber and Special Prosecution in charge of prosecuting war criminals are isolated in muddy political waters but persistent in their endeavor to indict and bring before justice suspects. According to the War Crimes Prosecution, 111 persons have processed so far, which "encompassed" 2,113 victims of the war in ex-Yugoslavia. Effective verdicts were passed in two cases - to Milan Bulic in the Ovcara case and to Anton Lekaj in the Djakovica case. Ten cases are in the trial stage, while 30 persons are under investigation.

The Ovcara case is on trial for the third time before the War Crimes Chamber since the Supreme Court, deciding on the appeal, ordered retrial. It was only this autumn that the retrial opened due to the change of the Trial Chamber. No doubt that this trial is a test of independent judgment for the Prosecution and the domestic judiciary as a whole. It will show whether - once the tribunal in The Hague closes its door - confrontation with the developments in early 1990s and trials of criminals will be pursued or left to some future generations that have nothing to do with all that. Therefore, the war crimes trials before domestic courts simply had to produce "a sobering effect" on Serbia's citizens.

The retrial in the Ovcara case certainly speaks not in favor of fair, efficient and economical proceedings, the more so since independent international observers have also assessed Justice Vesko Krstajic's handling of the trial excellent. The indictment for the Ovcara crime does not rest on command responsibility given that only executioners are in the dock in Belgrade. Though they deny any responsibility, the firsthand testimonies pictured the atrocities taking place at the farm nearby Vukovar, where some 200 Croat captives had been tortured and shot.

While many over here are beating their patriotic chests and claiming that Seselj "shines" before the Trial Chamber and that "the Prosecution lacks evidence," it should be remembered that the former head of the Counterintelligence Service, Aleksandar Vasiljevic, had pointed a finger at Seselj's troops as executioners of the Ovcara massacre. Though some crimes committed in Croatia have been omitted in the latest version of the indictment against Seselj, Vukovar remained. "Seselj's volunteers have been involved in massive killings in Ovcara," Prosecutor Christina Dahl said in her opening statement. Seselj had not only placed Vukovar volunteers under his control but his public speeches had also been imbued with hatred, threats and intimidation. The Hague Tribunal has already laid down that spread of hatred could represent incitement of crime against humanity.

Trials continue - the Seselj trial in The Hague and the trial of 16 persons accused of the Ovcara crime in Belgrade. And until verdicts for war crimes are not passed and become undisputable and effective, many in Serbia will be beating their patriotic chests, the Radicals' ratings will be higher and higher, and crimes will retain the form of an ideology.


NO 115-116

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