World

Rights group warns of state obstruction in Srebrenica trial

A prominent human rights group warned on Friday of systematic state obstruction of war crimes trials in Serbia after landmark proceedings against eight former Bosnian Serb police officers charged with taking part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre had been halted.

The Humanitarian Law Center said Friday an appeals court decision to reject the indictment in the killing of 8,000 Muslims from Srebrenica, and thus stop an ongoing trial, was the result of a major oversight by the Serbian judicial authorities, fueling suspicions about Serbia's commitment to bringing war criminals to justice.

The Appeals court said Thursday it has accepted the defense contention that the indictment in the Srebrenica trial was invalid because it was filed while Serbia did not have a chief war crimes prosecutor. This means the indictment must be refiled and the trial — which started in December — must start over.

The trial was the first time that a Serbian court has dealt with Europe's worst single atrocity since World War II. The proceedings were seen as a test of Serbia's pledge to deal with its wartime past as it formally wants to join the European Union.

"This is not the first time that procedural mistakes lead to stalling of war crimes trials," HLC group said. "Therefore, it is more appropriate to speak of a system of obstruction of war crimes trials by the state authorities than accidental omissions."

Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist who now says he wants the country to join the EU and make peace with its neighbors, has faced accusations of stalling in his promises to punish those responsible for war crimes of the 1990s.

Those lapses include not punishing the killers of three American citizens whose bodies were dumped into a mass grave after fighting in Kosovo in 1999.

In rejecting the Srebrenica charges, the appeals court said that according to the Serbian justice system, only the war crimes prosecutor can file war crimes indictments and conduct investigations.

Serbia had been without the war crimes prosecutor for more than a year after the previous one, Vladimir Vukcevic, retired. The new war crimes prosecutor, Snezana Stanojkovic, was appointed in May.

The HLC group accused Serbia's public prosecutor Zagorka Dolovac of failure to appoint an acting chief war crimes prosecutor although it was her legal obligation. The statement said she had done so in other similar cases.

"By this illegal behavior, the public prosecutor directly obstructed the process of war crimes trials in Serbia," the statement said, adding that other proceedings also could be canceled for the same reasons.

There was no immediate reaction from Dolovac.

The eight men were charged with participating in the killing of 1,313 Muslims in a warehouse in Kravica, a village outside Srebrenica. They were crammed into a warehouse in the village and then killed with grenades and machine guns in a rampage that lasted all night.

Among the suspects was special police unit commander Nedeljko Milidragovic, also known as "Nedjo the Butcher," accused of organizing the killings. The indictment said Milidragovic fired his pistol at those who still showed signs of life.