In 2022, the Montenegrin authorities started investigating a retired Yugoslav navy officer and put a Bosnian Serb Army ex-soldier on trial, but there were few other signs of progress towards dealing with the country’s wartime past.
During the past few months, Montenegro’s new state prosecutor Vladmir Novovic has made minor improvements in dealing with the country’s wartime past but has yet to achieve any results in court, experts say.
Novovic was appointed as new chief special state prosecutor in March after the former chief prosecutor Milivoje Katnic retired the previous month.
The Special State Prosecutor’s Office opened one investigation into a former military official but failed to reopen any archived wartime investigations from the 1990s, while the Higher Court in Podgorica began the trial of a former Bosnian Serb Army soldier accused of murder and rape.
Tamara Milas from the Centre for Civic Education NGO said that the prosecutors had only made minimal efforts, but still without any legal outcome.
“The Special State Prosecutor’s Office submitted one indictment during the past year, while five cases are still being investigated. Despite the changes at the Special State Prosecution, there is still no professional interest in command responsibility for war crimes,” Milas told BIRN.
Montenegro participated in the 1990s wars as part of Yugoslavia, although there was no fighting on its own territory. Since the country became independent in 2006, it has held just eight trials for war crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and only low-level perpetrators have been brought to court.
In its 2022 report on Montenegro’s progress towards EU membership, the European Commission also stated that the prosecution achieved limited results in implementing its war crime strategy, but noted that the country is seeking to make changes to the law intended to improve the way it deals with war crimes.
“Amendments are being prepared to the Criminal Code to proactively address the legal and practical obstacles to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish war crimes in line with international standards. Work continued on legislative changes that would allow Montenegro to effectively investigate and prosecute conflict-related sexual violence cases,” the report said.
The Special State Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to BIRN’s request to comment on experts’ criticism of its work on war crimes investigations.
Admiral probed after newspaper exposé
The one new investigation opened this year focused on retired admiral Dragan Samardzic, the former chief of the Montenegrin Army’s General Staff.
The Special State Prosecutor’s Office is probing allegations that Samardzic was involved in war crimes against civilians in the area around the Croatian coastal city of Split in November 1991.
The case was opened in August after newspaper Vijesti published a story about Samardzic’s alleged role in attacks on Dubrovnik in Croatia.
When war broke out in Croatia in 1991, Samardzic was a missile boat commander in the Yugoslav Navy. According to the Vijesti report, he was in command of the missile boat RTOP406 Ante Banina, part of a tactical group called Kastela.
Samardzic has denied the allegations. He wrote on Twitter in August that the Croatian State Attorney’s Office in Split had found there were no criminal reports against him for war crimes.
“So no one in Croatia is accusing me of anything, but in Montenegro a criminal case has been filed against me. I can’t wait to make a statement to the prosecution,” he said in the post.
The one new trial this year opened in September at the Higher Court in Podgorica. Montenegrin citizen Slobodan Pekovic is in the dock for allegedly committing crimes against humanity in the town of Foca in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992.
The Special State Prosecutor’s Office claims he was involved in killing two Bosniaks and raping and sexually abusing civilians in Foca. Pekovic pleaded not guilty, insisting he did not participate in attacks around Foca.
Montenegro’s problems with addressing the past have been exacerbated by the fact that from June 2021 until February this year, the country was without a Supreme State Prosecutor after Ivica Stankovic retired and MPs failed to elect his successor in parliament.
According to the constitution, the votes of a two-thirds majority of MPs are needed, a total of 54 votes, with the bar falling to 48 MPs in a second-round vote. But the ruling majority only has 41 of the 81 seats in parliament. In February, Maja Jovanovic was appointed interim Supreme State Prosecutor.
Without a Supreme State Prosecutor, it was legally impossible to produce a new state strategy on war crimes investigations. According to the current strategy, which dates from 2015, archived investigations should be reopened.
However, during the past year, none have been re-examined, said Mehdina Kasic Sutkovic from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights NGO.
“We haven’t had any investigations reopened by the Montenegrin prosecutor’s office. Although war crimes do not become statute-barred, we have the problem that witnesses as well as perpetrators die and we lose important testimonies,” Kasic Sutkovic told BIRN.
Crimes commemorated but justice languishes
The outgoing government continued its political moves towards dealing with the country’s past by attending anniversary commemorations of wartime crimes in 2022.
In May, the head of the Montenegrin police, Zoran Brdjanin, apologised to families of victims on the 30th anniversary of the deportation of at least 66 Bosniak refugees and some ethnic Serbs from the town of Herceg Novi.
For the first time, Interior Minister Filip Adzic, Justice Minister Marko Kovac, Minister of Social Care Admir Adrovic, minister without portfolio Adrian Vuksanovic and the head of the Islamic Community in Montenegro, Rifat Fejzic, were all present at the ceremony.
The Bosniaks and Serbs were illegally detained and brought to the police headquarters in Herceg Novi, near the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, from where they were deported on buses to Bosnian Serb-controlled territory. They were then detained in camps and only a few survived.
In September, Montenegrin and Croatian officials unveiled a memorial on the Croatian island of Vis to Yugoslav naval officer Vladimir Barovic, who refused to bomb towns on Croatia’s coast in the war in 1991. Barovic committed suicide on September 29, 1991 after rejecting the orders from the Yugoslav People’s Army headquarters.
Milas warned that despite the symbolic displays, the outgoing government failed to adopt any strategic document related to dealing with wartime past.
“Apart from few examples of building a culture of memory, there was no clear political will to put this wartime past in focus,” she said. Recommendations about adopting legislation to address the issue of missing persons and regulating the status of their families have not been taken up, she added.
Kasic Sutkovic said that the narratives of the wartime past are still present in society despite the officials’ presence at this year’s commemorations.
“We have a situation in which state officials appear at commemorations of war crimes, and on the other hand, a situation in which nothing is done to achieve justice for the injustices committed during the 1990s,” she said.