The agreement for the extradition of people charged with corruption and organised crime is an expansion of prosecutorial agreements signed last year.
By Anes Alic for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 28/05/12
After lengthy negotiations, justice ministry delegations from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) have finalised an interstate agreement on the mutual extradition of people suspected of organised crime, corruption and money laundering.
The agreement, expected to be signed in June, will pave the way for Serbia and BiH to extradite their own nationals in cases of organised criminal activity, corruption and money laundering and other major crimes that generally carry a prison sentence of five or more years.
Importantly, the agreement will prevent those holding dual citizenship from fleeing across the border to avoid prosecution at home.
The document represents an expansion of existing prosecutorial agreements signed last year.
While almost all of the countries of the former Yugoslavia have the signed interstate legal treaties, constitutional discrepancies among countries have kept those treaties from being implemented. In order to enable extradition, Croatia would have to change its constitution, while Serbia and BiH will have to amend their criminal codes.
Jusuf Halilagic, BiH justice ministry secretary and chief of the Bosnian delegation, told SETimes that the agreement will create conditions for considerably more efficient judicial co-operation between the two states in terms of extradition of persons who have been accused of a crime or found guilty. "
Criminals from the ex-Yugoslavian republics have remained connected as if the country never disintegrated. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the most critical because our agreement for issuing citizenship is the most liberal. At least two-thirds of Bosnian citizens hold dual nationality -- and therefore two passports -- which provides a good opportunity for abuse," Halilagic said.
Hundreds of people suspected of, or indicted for, various crimes committed in ex-Yugoslavian republics have sought shelter in neighbouring countries, where they hold dual citizenship, placing them out of the reach of the judicial system. It is a legal loophole that has allowed many to avoid serving prison sentences.
Milivoje Mihajlovic, the Serbian government's media office chief, told SETimes that Belgrade has launched a region-wide fight against organised crime, and the agreement with BiH is part of that process.
"We must be absolutely determined and open in the fight against all types of crime, as criminals do not view borders as obstacles. Only regional action among neighbouring countries can prevent organised crime," Mihajlovic said.
Of 350 people sentenced by Bosnian courts, BiH Justice Ministry records show that 106 have found sanctuary in Croatia, 100 in Serbia, and 24 in Montenegro. The whereabouts of the remaining convicts are unknown, while the number of those indicted but on the run is as high as 600.
On a number of levels, this agreement is a very positive development, not least because it is crucial for EU membership. It will also do much to strengthen regional and transnational co-operation in fighting organised crime and ensure that no single country will be a safe haven for criminals, including corrupt politicians.
For years, the EU has identified cross-border criminal flight as a huge obstacle in the fight against organised crime in the region, as well as for the prosecution of war crimes by national courts.
However, war crimes suspects will not be included in the agreement. BIH has obstructed the agreement on this level due to the recent arrest of a number of Bosnian officials on Serbian extradition warrants.
Last year, after months of preparations supervised by the international community, legal experts from Serbia and BiH were expected to sign a special protocol to regulate co-operation over war crimes prosecution.
Ideally, the accord would have addressed the issue of parallel investigations and facilitated the mutual transfer of evidence in war crimes cases. It would also have regulated trials of suspects in their home countries for war crimes committed across state lines.
However, the Bosnian side backed out of the deal, saying its tripartite presidency had not yet consented. Unofficially, BiH withdrew over some specific cases in which Bosnian citizens were arrested while traveling abroad on Serbian arrest warrants and in the absence of any co-operation or collaboration with Bosnian authorities.
Zarije Seizovic, professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo, told SETimes that the issue of war crimes is a painful one that has burdened Western Balkan countries for 20 years. As there is no objective and truthful interpretation of the nature of the conflict, the issue of war crimes is being heavily abused for political purposes.
"Even if the parties incorporated the extradition of war crimes suspects into the agreement, it would have no impact on war crimes committed before the agreement came into force. However, an agreement that would have retroactive application would prevent parallel investigations going on in the same cases, which have proved to be stumbling points in Bosnia-Serbia war crimes co-operation," Seizovic said.
However, a war crimes extradition clause is not solely a Bosnian-Serbian issue of contention.
While other countries in the region have signed such agreements, in practice their active implementation is subordinate entirely to political goodwill. This, in turn, is often guided by public opinion, which often holds that a war crimes suspect is a national hero, making his extradition a very tricky ordeal politically.