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Tarik CRNKIĆ, District Prosecutor
162 WAR CRIMES CASES CURRENTLY UNDERWAY
Crknic cites the large number of cases and the reluctance of witnesses to come forward as two problems prosecutors face when investigating war crimes.
“I think this is particularly the case when it’s a matter of prosecution offices from entities. Although two decades have passed since the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a large amount of prejudice and mistrust remains,” said Crnkic.
Crnkic was appointed to the the position of district prosecutor in Istocno Sarajevo in March 2014. He’s worked at the Bosnian state prosecution for nine years. He started out as an intern, advanced to an analyst, and eventually became an expert on war crimes cases.
How many war crimes cases are you currently working on? Do you have cases with no suspected perpetrators?
Right now there are four big war crimes trials being held at the District Court in Istocno Sarajevo, I represented the indictment for each of them. In total, we have 162 war crimes cases - in 76 of those cases exhumations have been completed. Other cases involve charges with unverified allegations that still need work. We’re also working on ten cases with unknown perpetrators. Particular attention is being given to 52 cases, the majority of which are under investigation. These investigations are being conducted against 306 persons for suspected of violating international human rights law.
Initially, the majority of these cases came from what is now the Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office in Sarajevo, which opened investigations in these cases or worked on them when they were reported. However, they weren’t territorially accountable in this area. After the formation of the Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, they worked on them for some time and then they were transferred here. So to some extent it can be a problem, since three institutions have already worked on these cases.
You have statements from 1995 and 1996, statements from the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) in 2001, and so on. Too long a period of time has passed for those statements to be used. The witnesses should be spoken to again On the other hand, I understand a certain fatigue on the part of the victims and witnesses, due to repeated testimonies and appearances at institutions.
Can you compare the work of the Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the District Prosecutor’s Office in Istocno Sarajevo? Where is it more challenging to work?
First of all, there is a difference in the material and technical conditions of the work. That’s evident and clear. One difference that I didn’t experience when I worked at the Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina is the significantly longer procedure required for collecting evidence from entities. Given the fact that we have territorial jurisdiction, every movement out of that jurisdiction means changing the police agency involved and requires additional procedures. I think that’s harder to do at the entity level, rather than the state level.
During trials, witnesses tend to change their statements. What do you consider the main reason for witnesses changing their statements? Are any investigations being conducted for false testimony?
In the indictments I’ve represented until now, I haven’t had a situation where a witness has radically changed their statement from what they said during the investigation. I wasn’t the initiator and I haven’t participated in certain investigations of possible instances of false testimony or of witnesses being influenced. We have to bear in mind what’s typical in these kinds of cases, that the witnesses gave statements numerous times, and this could affect what they are confronted with during cross-examination.
The best way to avoid these kinds of situations is to ensure that during the investigation the prosecutor collects all previous statements of witnesses, regardless of when they were given or to whom. You must maintain contact with the witnesses, from the moment when testimony is given during the investigation until the trial. I especially try to listen to all of the key witnesses during the investigation phase, in order not to be in a situation where I meet the witness for the first time at the trial. However, attention should be paid in ensuring a short interval between the testimony given during the investigation and the testimony given at the main trial.
Which cases will be your priority in the upcoming trial period?
Cases with particularly severe consequences, which fall under the jurisdiction of this prosecution as per the criteria of the National Strategy for War Crimes. The consequences of the crime are the key criteria. This means, first of all: cases with fatal consequences, severe torture, sexual abuse, and severe inhumane treatment. I think the quality of the investigation is essential to solving these cases where the consequences are the most severe.
Do you have a Witness Support Unit at the District Prosecutor’s Office? Is having one beneficial?
Although we formally call it the Witness Support Unit, only one person works there. The prosecution has an employee who’s an expert consultant, a psychologist. My first contact with injured parties, especially those that have gone through extreme trauma, is filtered through our expert consultant/psychologist, and so far this has proven to be very successful. This is particularly the case in crimes where there are elements of sexual violence.
Have you ever worked on cases of sexual abuse? Are they reported to the District Prosecutor’s Office?
I don’t have a lot of these cases. We have four open cases and I’ve set them as priorities. There was one such trial before I began working here. In a way, I believe that it’s necessary to train the police agencies of entities, because the prosecution isn’t working alone, but with the police. An especially aggravating fact is that we can’t use SIPA’s Department for Witness Protection - from my past work I’m familiar with their excellent facilities. One of the two ways to deal with this is to train the police agencies of entities and the other is exploring the possibility of using SIPA’s Department for Witness Protection (depending on their available resources). That can also contribute to better work.
In these cases there needs to be psychological support, witnesses shouldn’t feel like they’re alone. The worst comment some witnesses have made in this regard was that they felt like they were the ones on trial.
After the trial, indictees are usually released. Can you tell us whether they are released because of the indictments or because witness testimony changes during the trial?
I can’t talk about what it was like before, because I wasn’t working here. When I worked as an expert at the Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not a single case was given an acquittal.
One of the war crimes trials at the District Court in Istocno Sarajevo has been ongoing for the past six years. Do you think this was a mistake on the part of the District Prosecutor’s Office? Who is to blame for such slow justice?
I don’t agree that this is the case at cantonal and district courts. I think that on average, these trials last longer, but there are also more complicated cases here than at the state court. We’ve witnessed how long trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) last. It’s not unique for this to be the case at cantonal and district courts. One example that I know of is of a trial chamber changing on several occasions. If a member of the trial chamber changes, the trial begins again. Of course, it’s difficult to explain to a witness that they have to come and testify again, but simply put, it’s the law. (Albina Sorguc BIRN BiH)