There is no legislation preventing freed war criminals from being elected to office or appointed to a public service job in Bosnia and Herzegovina – but experts warn that the situation causes fear among war victims and undermines the rule of law.
etails of the crimes of Blagoje Simic, a Bosnian Serb politician in the Bosanski Samac municipality during the war, were laid out clearly in the guilty verdict handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague in 2006.
Simic was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for aiding and abetting the persecution of non-Serb civilians in Bosanski Samac in 1992 and 1993. The UN court said that the civilians were illegally arrested, confined in inhumane conditions at detention facilities, and made to do forced labour.
After serving his sentence, Simic returned to Bosanski Samac and was then appointed director of the local health centre in 2017.
Researcher Hikmet Karcic cites the Simic case in his report entitled ‘Obeying Unlawful Orders: Continuity of Personnel Involved in Human Rights Violations and its Impact on Reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina’.
Karcic notes in the report that several convicted war criminals who have served their sentences have since returned to public office in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The impunity of these civil servants – the ordinary bureaucrats in municipalities and police stations – has a detrimental effect on the rule of law in local communities,” he argues.
The District Court in Doboj annulled Simic’s appointment twice because evidence was not provided to prove that he had no previous convictions.
Of all the defendants convicted by the Hague Tribunal of crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, at least 41 have already come out of prison. Another 68 people who were sentenced for war crimes by the Bosnian state court have served their sentences already.
Another of the Hague defendants who has been freed is Simo Zaric, who was tried alongside Blagoje Simic. After his release, Zaric was elected deputy mayor of Bosanski Samac in 2008.
The Hague Tribunal sentenced Zaric to six years in prison for crimes against humanity in Bosanski Samac, including the inhumane treatment, torture and beating of non-Serb civilian prisoners.
“While he did not personally beat the prisoners, as a person highly engaged and respected in the social and cultural life in Bosanski Samac, he gave encouragement and moral support to those who did,” the verdict said.
The number of non-Serbs living in the Bosanski Samac municipality fell dramatically because of the war, and Serbs now form the ethnic majority there.
After being elected as deputy mayor, Zaric promised that he would work “for the interests of all the citizens of this municipality”.
‘Impunity sends a dangerous message’
There are no legal restrictions in Bosnia and Herzegovina to prevent people who were convicted of war crimes to work in the country’s public services or administration.
Branko Grujic, who was sentenced to six years for wartime crimes in Zvornik by a court in Belgrade, also returned to politics after his release, running as an election candidate for the Serb Democratic Party in 2012.
Grujic told BIRN at the time that he was partly motivated by the need to pay 30,000 euros he owed to the Serbian authorities for the court-appointed lawyer who defended him.
“Since a deputy has a salary, I am forced to try for office. Otherwise, I would be retired,” Grujic said.
During the Bosnian war, Grujic headed the provisional government of the so-called Serb Municipality of Zvornik, which imprisoned more than 900 Bosniaks from several villages near Zvornik in detention centres.
Grujic was found guilty of the forcible relocation of over 1,600 Bosniaks from the village of Kozluk to territory controlled by the Bosniak-led Bosnian Army, althogh he maintained that he did nothing wrong, and that “every citizen of Zvornik, whether Serb or Muslim, knows that I was sent to prison for no reason”.
Mevludin Lupic, a Bosniak who testified at Grujic’s trial, expressed frustration that a convicted war criminal could be allowed to get involved in politics again and “be able to make decisions about everything that happens in the municipality of Zvornik” as he did during the ethnic cleansing in 1992.
Last year, freed war criminal Fikret Abdic was re-elected as the mayor of the Velika Kladusa municipality.
Abdic, 81, who spent about ten years in prison after being convicted in Croatia for war crimes against Bosniaks, was released from jail in 2012 and won the mayoralty for the first time in 2016.
During the war, he set himself in opposition to the Bosnian government by leading a separatist statelet called the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia.
While leading the breakaway statelet, Abdic fought against fellow Bosniaks who were loyal to the Sarajevo government, cooperated with Serb and Croat forces, and set up prison camps where war crimes were committed against captured Bosnian Army soldiers who were held there.
Before the war however, Abdic was an executive at the company Agrokomerc, whose headquarters were in Velika Kladusa and which employed 13,000 people, making it one of the most successful agricultural firms in the former Yugoslavia and winning him strong backing locally.
When he was first elected mayor in 2016, other mayors from Bosnia’s north-western Una-Sana Canton walked out of an official ceremony in protest.
The mayor of Kljuc, Nedzad Zukanovic, said he wanted to send a clear message that those convicted of war crimes should not be elected mayor, adding that he did not want to “sit in a room with war criminals”.
Former judge Vehid Sehic explained that, after they have served their jail terms, former convicts get back all their civil rights, and there are no measures preventing them from getting involved in politics or public service.
“The law says that even those suspected of war crimes, should they voluntarily surrender to the Hague Tribunal, could stand as candidates in elections,” Sehic said.
Last year, an initiative to change the country’s electoral law was launched by Denis Becirevic of the Social Democratic Party, but lawmakers in the House of Peoples of the Bosnian parliament rejected it.
Hikmet Karcic argues that allowing freed war criminals and individuals indicted for war crimes to be candidates for public office “has serious implications for political reforms” in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“These networks of former local level officials have the ability to influence reform processes, particularly with regard to war crimes and organised crime,” he writes.
Karcic also suggests that the continued presence of perpetrators of wartime crimes in public office make refugees reluctant to return to the homes they left during the 1992-95 conflict.
“This is especially true when these perpetrators are employed in the capacity of local enforcement, and are thus supposedly responsible for the protection of the people they only recently targeted,” he writes.
“Participants in the Srebrenica genocide alone account for an alarming 800 active duty police officers in [Bosnia and Herzegovina] today. The impunity provided these officers and other perpetrators of atrocities by their role in civil society sectors, sends a dangerous message to others that crime pays off,” he warns.