Bosnia's reputation in the early 1990s as one of the world's most dangerous places has given way to a new, postwar tagline: a country that has routinely offered impunity to organized criminals and sticky-fingered politicians. But the work of a special department in the year-old state court is starting to counter that reputation.
The leader of an 18-member sex-trafficking ring was recently sent to jail for nine years. Witnesses are being questioned in a corruption case involving a local Interpol official. In January, NATO peacekeepers arrested a former president whom a Canadian prosecutor will soon indict for bank fraud and abuse of office.
These cases are part of a new, international approach to dealing with crime in Bosnia. Fewer than a dozen foreigners - five judges and five prosecutors, selected by the Office of the High Representative - are working alongside Bosnians in the court's special department for organized crime, economic crime, and corruption, to end the stranglehold that sex traffickers, money launderers, and crooked politicians have had over the country since the war ended nearly nine years ago.
The idea is that foreigners are less likely to be influenced or scared off by domestic criminals. They are also immune to nationalism. "Now you have international judges and international prosecutors who should be dealing with these cases objectively, derailing objections to Serbs judging Croats, Croats judging Muslims, Muslims judging each other," says Marinko Jurcevic, the court's head prosecutor.
Until last year, Bosnia's higher courts were based in the two postwar entities - the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic. Bosnia's top international official, Britain's Paddy Ashdown, imposed the state-level court and new criminal-procedure codes last year.
His office, which runs Bosnia as a de facto protectorate, is fixing the legal system to stymie organized crime and corruption, and to help the country's moribund economy.
The court's special department will handle a small number of high-profile cases for several years until the international community determines the job can be turned over to Bosnians. The department's biggest case involves a former president, a former defense minister, and a former army general who allegedly bilked their own army payroll through a bank.
"To deal with those cases objectively will send an extremely powerful message to the average citizen - that no one is above the law," says Bill Potter, the deputy head of rule of law in Mr. Ashdown's office.
The bank case in particular should make an impression. The three defendants are prominent Bosnian Croat politicians who led a separatist movement years ago. "While they were organizing this massive fraud they were promoting themselves as Croat human rights heroes. It's important that they be exposed as thieves," says John McNair, who is prosecuting the case.
Peacekeepers in NATO's Stability Force (SFOR) have been cooperative, say prosecutors, though SFOR maintains that it's not the international community's police force. Their support was considered invaluable in January when they helped local police in the raid that netted the three bank fraud suspects.
"If we're called and it's within our mandate, we're there to support the international community," says SFOR spokesman Dave Sullivan.
The department's novelty has caused some problems. American Judge Myron Greenberg says he was "outraged" last month upon discovering that a prisoner who was supposed to have been paroled had not been released because the local ministry hadn't appointed a parole board.
And the new criminal procedures - which borrow heavily from the American-style adversarial system - are unusual to many Bosnians in the judiciary, given their 120-year tradition of continental law. For example, the new system requires an aggressive role for defense attorneys; The old system gave the job of digging up pre-trial evidence to an investigative judge.
"At the very first trial there was clearly a lack of familiarity with the new roles, of prosecutors, of defense attorneys, and the role of the court," he says. "[But] we have wholesale dropped this new, different system on an entire judicial system - anywhere in the world it'd take time."
The consensus is that the department is a step in the right direction. Ashdown called the sex-trafficking case "a signal which should send a shiver down the spine of every criminal who wants to use [Bosnia] to his own advantage." Court president Martin Raguz says that even nationalist politicians who were against the court's establishment have realized that they now have to respect it.
"There's no resistance to the court anymore," he says. "They have to reconcile themselves to it, because there's no establishing a functioning country if there's no roof of judicial institutions over it."