Srebrenica: 16 years later, justice at last?

Some 40,000 people gathered July 11 to remember the massacre of an estimated 8,000 captive Muslim men and boys on that day in 1995 at the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, when it was overrun by besieging Serb rebel forces. Religious rites were held by Bosnian Muslim spiritual leader Reiss-ul-Ulema Mustafa Ceric as 613 new victims exhumed from various locations since last year’s commemoration were buried in the memorial cemetery at Potocari, six kilometers outside the town. Many of those in attendance walked for days from mountain villages which had sheltered refugees from Srebrenica during the war, in what has become an annual pilgrimage. The event was attended by international dignitaries, including Croatian president Ivo Josipovic and Turkish vice-premier Bulent Arinc. Serbian president Boris Tadic, who attended last year’s ceremony, was absent this year, but sent a message saying Serbia is determined to punish all war criminals—although he stressed that he expected the same from other countries. The Muslim member of Bosnia’s rotating presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, praised Tadic for keeping his promise made at last year’s commemoration to arrest wartime Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic. But he protested that a “greater part of Serbian people still evades facing the truth,” and glorify Mladic “as a hero.” (AKI, July 11; AP, July 8)

Historical memory in Serbia
In the days following Mladic’s arrest on May 26, thousands of Serb nationalists rallied in Belgrade in his support, and to demand that he not be extradited to The Hague to face charges of genocide for the Srebrenica massacre, as well as war crimes charges related to the 1992-5 siege of Sarajevo. Mladic’s son Darko Mladic told reporters his father bore no responsibility in the massacre, and had in fact “saved so many women, children and fighters.” Some 1,000 Mladic supporters also rallied in the Bosnian town of Kalinovik, where Mladic was born, waving posters of the man they consider a hometown hero and accusing Tadic of treason. (VOA, May 29)

But ÄŚedomir Jovanović, leader of Serbia’s opposition Liberal Democratic Party, called for his country to officially mark July 11 as Srebrenica Victims Remembrance Day, saying “it would be both human and political proof of the country’s transformation.” He decried the “policy of denial” that still seeks to minimize or justify the massacre in Serbia. “Sixteen years after Srebrenica we still haven’t enabled our society to fully learn and understand the proportions of the mass crime, the most painful epilogue of a criminal policy that led to it,” he said. He characterized the “Srebrenica Declaration,” narrowly approved by the Serbian parliament last year, as “incomplete” for condemning the massacre while stopping short of calling it genocide. (B-92, Belgrade, July 10; DW-World, Germany, March 31, 2010)

Historical memory in Bosnian Serb Republic
Milorad Dodik, president of the Bosnian Serb Republic (Republika Srpska), announced in May—little more than a week before Mladic’s arrest—that he was cancelling a referendum on the legality of the Bosnian war crimes court set to open the following month. The referendum would have gauged support among citizens of Republika Srpska for the Bosnian federal judiciary. Proponents of the referendum insisted that the judiciary is biased against Serbs in war crimes cases. Critics of the referendum questioned its legality, arguing that it was a violation of the Dayton Accords, which separated the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) into two entities—the Republika Srpksa and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. Opponents argued that allowing only one region to determine the validity of a national system was illegal and would lead to increased ethnic tensions. Dodik canceled the referendum in light of assurances made by the European Commission that the EU would review the judiciary.

The War Crimes Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina was established in 2005 to reduce the caseload of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. In March, the court confirmed the indictment of a former Serb police officer, Bozidar Kuvelja, on genocide charges for his role in the Srebrenica massacre. In January, the court sentenced a Bosnian Muslim commander, Sefik Alic, to 10 years in prison, overturning a 2008 acquittal regarding his failure to prevent the deaths of four prisoners in his custody and participating in their inhumane treatment. In December, the court convicted four former Bosnian Serb police of killing at least 150 civilians during the civil war. (Jurist, May 14)

On July 4, Mladic was ordered removed from a hearing at The Hague war crimes tribunal after repeatedly interrupting the judge and ignoring his orders not to address spectators in the public gallery—to whom he tipped his hat and gave a thumbs-up sign. Mladic refused to enter a plea after his request to change his lawyer to one of his choosing was denied, because he had not made his request in time, the judge said. A not guilty plea was entered on his behalf after he had been removed form the courtroom. (BBC News,VOA, July 4)

Anguish in The Netherlands
A court in the Netherlands has meanwhile ruled the Dutch state was responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, where Dutch troops were in charge of maintaining the town as a UN-protected “safe area.” The case centred on three Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) who were working for the Dutch force, known as Dutchbat, and were ejected from the compound after the Serb forces overran the town. Between 4,000 and 5,000 were initially allowed into the compound for protection, while an estimated 20,000 remained outside. About 300 men of military age are estimated to have been expelled from the compound at the demand of the Serb forces. The case was brought by relatives of the three men, who worked as translators and an electrician for Dutchbat. (BBC News, July 5)

See our last posts on the struggle in Bosnia.