Bosnia – Herzegovina War Crimes High Court

image  We arrived at the courthouse after a 10 minute taxi ride from the hotel.  The court looked austere, and was surrounded by a large iron fence.  The class jittered with nervousness while Ann spoke with with the Court coordinator/educator.  The temperature was climbing and the sun was due to be shining again for the afternoon.  Lauren had arrived in flip-flops and a tank top; she changed shoes and added both a sweater and a scarf in compliance with the Court’s dress code requirements.  We went through the check point which included a visual inspection by the four armed guards for dress, a metal detector and our items going through an x-ray machine.  My cellphone, as expected, was pulled and delivered to a locker which just on the other side of the machines.  I recognized other cell phones in the case from my classmates.

Once we were through this screening, we waited quietly in the shade outside of what seemed to be the primary building.  We found out later that the compound also includes holding cells for those on trial.  We were streamlined into the building, up the stairs past modern artwork and into a room would could have been a large American gymnasium at another time and place.  It had high ceilings with a row of tables and chairs.  Each seat had a computer monitor, a tall microphone, head phones and a command center for the microphone & head phones.  We all landed easily into the seats, and I elected for a seat in the middle of the front.  It’s also a classroom habit of mine; I like to be in the front to help me keep my focus in class.

We were oriented to the use of the audio-visual equipment.  We were then told that the live Bosnian-English interpretors were located in the room behind us above the room.  Their room was a closed in balcony, I could see no faces.  To the left of the front of the room was what could only be considered a shielded room for testimony.  The room could fit one person easily, and had marble on the top and bottom with what is likely bullet-proof glass.  The silver blinds were closed inside the room; a loose interpretation of the protection of the people of Srebrenica.  I imagined Saliha sitting in there, ferociously speaking the truth.

Our first guest speaker was introduced, a female judge.  At that moment all lingering notions of a Muslim woman were torn apart for me.  I was curious for answers regarding allegations of thousands of rapes of Bosnian women; she reported that there were no cases which had been specifically tried for that.  Later questions revealed that while rape could be tried independently of war crimes, in many of the previous cases it is considered as part of testimony for “a crime against humanity.”  I was not discouraged, rather I just needed to reconfigure the logistics in my mind about how this court and other courts operated.

The judge referred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY or the Hague due to the Tribunal’s location) numerous times.  In the 2010 book “Srebrenica: Remembrance for the Future,” which our Potocari Genocide Memorial host gave out at our visit, the ICTY was set up in 1993 in response to the crises in BiH.  It’s purpose was to investigate and pursue prosecution of the perpetrators of violence and breaches of the Geneva Convention of 1949.  There was hope from the United Nations Security Council that it’s creation would deter further atrocities as it sought accountability for the killings and forced marches.  Unfortunately, the process to implement it’s design took too much time and did not deter further atrociites from happening, including the Death March and genocide of Srebrenica.

Other students have vocalized in this blog the distress of finding out the meager sentencing to the perpetrators of war crimes against humanity.  However, according to book the ICTY allows and encourages for the investigation and prosecution of war criminals in the BiH court to occur concurrent to the ICTY proceedings.  The BiH Judge referred to “complex cases” which may go to the Hague over being tried in the BiH court.  The Judge also noted that sentencing was more punitive (in years) in the BiH court over the ICTY.  I am honestly having a hard time reconciling that the ICTY sentencing for genocide and other crimes against humanity would be lesser than compared to the BiH court.

It is well-known in the U.S. that court cases can go at a snail’s pace.  I don’t see that the BiH judicial branch is much different, and even more so with the vast amount of information from witnesses and victims of the perpetrators.  This is not a criticism but a reality.  Number-wise, the judge revealed that sentencing has occurred for 45 perpetrators, with around 7000 witnesses since 2003 when the investigations and prosecutions of BiH started.  This is a galactic portion of work for court social workers.

The Judge spoke freely of the intentional diversity of the panels to include international and local representatives from the major sects within BiH: Bosniak, Serbian and Croatian.  The Judge shared personal information regarding how she operates around personal experiences during the war as a professional: going to work during sniper and mortar attacks, with little food or water, no heat or electricity and no pay, speaks volumes to dedication.

I continue to have lingering questions about whether sentencing is concurrent or consecutive to ICTY.  I wonder why the judicial system works so well with diversity, yet other facets of the country cannot.  The Judge reported that there is no longer an international representative on the BiH panels, why is the international community fading?  BiH seems to be left alone again. Why has the international community abandoned BiH?  As a social worker how can I best support the Bosnian people?  With atrocities continuing around the world it seems that we will need to continue to do this, until humanity somehow learns the lesson.

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