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.

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.

"I don't have great trust in the court, at least at this moment, because the courts that should have done this by now were formed on ethnic lines," he says, referring to the local courts that have tried war-crimes cases.

Mr. Janjic's office is just blocks from the former front line, where a once-grand, tree-lined boulevard lies deserted, the windows of its Austro-Hungarian spa hotels shattered or boarded up. Nearby buildings are wrapped in red tape warning of land mines.

Janjic says the chamber would be more trustworthy if it used foreign judges. And that's the plan. For the first five years, panels of foreign judges and prosecutors will work with Bosnians, taking cases deferred by the UN tribunal or its prosecutors, or new cases approved by the tribunal.

By using foreigners for the first few years, the Bosnian war-crimes court will mirror a state court department that's been open since March, prosecuting mafia groups that engage in smuggling and trafficking in women.

One of the department's four foreign prosecutors said it was too soon to say whether it has been successful.

"It's a legal adventure," says Canadian prosecutor Jonathan Ratel, adding that the "huge question" is the state court's lack of a police force.

Without such a force, the war-crimes chamber will be hard-pressed to collect documents, protect witnesses or judges, or punish nationalist politicians trying to interfere with the court. But any international moves to create a state police force may meet with resistance. Nationalists - Serbs in particular, since they fought the war for Bosnian territory and consider their entity a state within a state - want to keep a weaker central structure.

Some people say that, even if there are convictions, the local trials may not persuade people in Bosnia that genocide and similar crimes actually occurred during the war.

Jakob Finci is a local Jewish leader who has been trying to establish a truth and reconciliation commission similar to South Africa's for several years. Local war-crimes trials, he says, won't do much for truth-seeking while Bosnia's Croats, Muslims, and Serbs cannot see that their side committed atrocities.

"Because of our history, I don't think that the courts are really accepted as independent institutions. Even The Hague is only accepted when they aren't investigating 'our own' people," Mr. Finci says.

Still, Bosnians hope to see justice served. "There's no peace while criminals are walking free," says Mr. Janjic in Ilidza. Refugees won't return home while the people who drove them away are still around, and he says, "That's the final point of ethnic cleansing."

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