Bosnia to Try Its War Criminals, but Is New Court Up to the Job? ; War-Crimes Tribunal in Sarajevo Will Hear Cases as Early as 2004

Article excerpt

The physical scars of Bosnia's devastating civil war are slowly beginning to fade. Harder to eradicate is the deep distrust of efforts to prosecute individuals for the ethnic violence that left 200,000 dead. Until now, a UN tribunal in The Hague has handled such prosecutions. But with the international panel under pressure to wrap up within seven years, Bosnia's new state court is being tapped to take over.

The short-term hope is that some of the scores of people thought to have committed murder, torture, and rape during the war from 1992 to 1995 will be brought to account. But in the long run, many observers hope that the court will strengthen confidence in Bosnia's ability to handle its own problems.

Bosnia's ability to hold fair trials is "a basic prerequisite for the rule of law and (is essential) if justice is to be seen to apply equally and to all," says Oleg Milisic, a spokesman for Bosnia's top international official, Paddy Ashdown. "Ultimately, the confidence ... citizens have in their own justice system, and therefore their own state, is directly proportional to the justice system's ability to deal fairly and properly with these most terrible crimes."

The UN tribunal has tried more than 40 people since being established in The Hague in 1993. But its slow pace and its $120 million annual price tag have spurred the UN Security Council and the Bush administration to ask the court to finish trials by 2008 and appeals by 2010.

The strategy is to continue to try leaders such as former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, while deferring lower-level cases to Bosnia, says Refik Hodzic, the tribunal's Sarajevo spokesman.

Local courts have already tried some cases, but have been criticized by human rights groups such as Amnesty International for endless delays, and for not protecting witnesses from threats or intimidation. Bosnians question the local courts' impartiality.

But the war-crimes chamber would be a component of the state court that opened in January as part of Mr. Ashdown's attempt to bring both jobs and justice to Bosnians. Ashdown has also been purging the judiciary of corrupt and incompetent prosecutors and judges, and has imposed tough new criminal codes.

It's a sharp contrast from the early postwar years, when Bosnia's two entities - the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic - had more power than the federal state, with their own high courts, militaries, police forces, and customs agencies.

International donors have already pledged the first $18 million of the estimated $44.5 million that the new chamber needs over five years. The panel is supposed to be taking cases by late 2004.

But people like Jovo Janjic, a Serbs rights advocate in the Sarajevo suburb of Ilidza, are skeptical. …

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