Time, inexperience slow war crimes trials in Montenegro

19/03/2012

Families of victims are dissatisfied, while courts view war crimes cases as very complicated.

By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Podgorica – 19/03/12

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Almost all the war crimes cases in Montenegro have faced delays. [Reuters]

The passage of time, as well as the inexperience of the court system with these types of trials, is holding up most of the war crimes court cases in Montenegro. The families of victims are not satisfied with the efficiency of the courts, while the courts justify the delays by saying that the cases are complicated.

Last week, Montenegro's Appeals Court overturned the acquittal of nine former police officers accused of handing over 79 Muslim refugees to Serb troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and ordered a new trial.

On Thursday (March 15th), the court said the retrial was ordered due to contradictions in the initial verdict that were highlighted in the appeals by the state prosecutor and the families of two victims.

"The subject will be returned to the High Court in Podgorica, and a new trial will begin soon," Appellate Court spokeswoman Irena Sofranac told SETimes.

The group includes former police officers and secret service agents charged with arresting the refugees in Herceg Novi, Bar and Ulcinj in 1992, and handing them over to Serb troops in the municipality of Foca. Most of the refugees were later executed.

Aside from this case, there are two open cases in Montenegro's courts: Kaludjerski Laz and Bukovica.

In January 2011, the High Court in Pijelo Polje released seven military and police officers in the Bukovica case. They were accused of war crimes committed in 1992 in the village of Bukovica, near Pljevlja, where about 200 Muslim families were expelled and six Muslims were killed.

Bukovica's Displaced Citizens Association President Jakob Durgut told SETimes that last year's verdict was expected.

"The process started 18 years after the crime was committed, and most of the witnesses are no longer alive," Durgut said.

He added that other cases of war crimes in Montenegro are also likely to end with the release of the suspected criminals.

In the Kaludjerski Laz case, nine members of the former Yugoslav National Army (JNA) are suspected of murdering 20 Albanian civilians who fled to Montenegro from Kosovo during the NATO bombing. After three years spent in custody, the suspects were released in August last year.

High Court of Bijelo Polje Judge Gorica Djalovic said that it has been difficult to gather evidence and hear all the witnesses in the case, because some of them are in Kosovo and Serbia.

"Kaludjerski Laz is very complicated and [has therefore] lasted more than three years. In the Bukovica case, the decision on new trial should be made in late March," Djalovic told SETimes.

Lawyer and former Minister of Justice Dragan Soc said that trials drag on for several reasons.

"The first is the fact that war crimes are very complex and it is better to explore every detail, than to make a hasty judgment. The second reason is that the Montenegrin judiciary has encountered the indictment for war crimes for the first time," Soc told SETimes.

But many, including Podgorica resident Marko Milacic, say the government is ultimately responsible for the slow trials and acquittals.

"If we look back at the results of the Montenegro's judiciary in trials of war crimes, we can [see] that in the past two decades, judicial institutions in Montenegro have been used to cover up war crimes," Milacic told SETimes.

Commission of the Ethical Code of Judges of Montenegro Chairman Neven Gosovic said the cases are a sensitive issue.

"In Montenegro, the political situation has always been very specific and therefore it's not good when people comment on judicial decisions -- particularly those concerning war crimes," Gosovic, who is also a Socialist People's Party MP, told SETimes.

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The only trial that has been closed is the case of war camp Morinj, near Kotor.

In January, Podgorica's High Court sentenced four members of the former JNA to a total of 12 years in prison for war crimes against Croatian prisoners in Morinj. The trial lasted more than five years.

After the verdict, the NGO Youth Initiative for Human Rights of Montenegro (YIRH) said that politics is deeply involved in war crimes cases.

"It is obviously that courts cannot or won't judge to people in high places ... This approach is an obstacle to the achievement of justice," YIRH said.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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