Effective Impunity: How a Wartime Rapist Avoided Punishment in Bosnia

The case of a convicted rapist who fled Bosnia and Herzegovina and evaded a jail sentence highlights yet again the problem of war crimes convicts and defendants dodging justice by escaping to countries that will not extradite them.

After being convicted, Ilija Juric never showed up to serve his sentence and has never been summoned to do so.

He vanished into thin air after the first-instance judgment was handed down in 2015, acquitting him of any responsibility for the wartime rape of a woman in Odzak in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992.

In September 2021, five years after the final judgment was handed down that saw him sentenced to six years in prison, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina publicly released a warrant for his arrest. Juric, who was a member of the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, the Bosnian Croat wartime force, was on a list with more than 130 other individuals who escaped justice and never served their sentences for war crimes.

The warrant was published in the local media and listed the perpetrators with their full names and dates of birth. It also listed their potential locations. For Juric, the court stated that his location was “unknown”, although in the judgment itself, the judge stated that Juric lives and works in a neighbouring country.

The warrant was reported by several online media outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the victim, Lola (not her real name) only heard about it when I informed her while working on my forthcoming book, Lola’s War, a study of the legacies of wartime rape trials using a one-woman story to highlight the systemic failures to prosecute and sentence wartime rapists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Soon after the court released the warrant for Juric, the International Criminal Police Organisation, Interpol, published a ‘red notice’ calling for his arrest.

Red notices are requests to law enforcement bodies in Interpol member countries around the world to arrest wanted individuals so they can be extradited, although member countries can decide whether to do this or not.

Eighteen months after the Bosnian court’s warrant and Interpol’s red notice were issued, Juric has still not been arrested.

He is probably in Croatia as he has Croatian citizenship as well as citizenship of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, even if Croatia arrests Juric, it is highly unlikely that the government in Zagreb would agree to hand him over due to the unwillingness of the state to cooperate with Bosnia and Herzegovina in the extradition of war criminals.

There is at least one case in which the Croatian authorities released a convicted war criminal after he arrived on their territory. The criminal, Marko Radic, had been transferred from Bosnia and Herzegovina to serve his sentence in Croatia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a member of European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, which says that any convicted person has a right to serve all or part of his or her sentence in the state of which he or she is a citizen.

Transfers between Bosnia and Herzegovina and other states are made each year under the convention. Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also signed a memorandum about mutual execution of court decisions in criminal cases.

Radic was sentenced to 21 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and after serving seven years of his sentence in Bosnia and Herzegovina prison, he was transferred to Croatia on approval of the then Minister of Justice Josip Grubes.

Once transferred, Radic was then released after serving only two months in prison. It remains unclear why he was transferred to Croatia since he was also a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina and so was already serving his sentence in his country of origin.

States refuse to cooperate

One of the major obstacles in processing war crime cases remains the unavailability of the defendants to the relevant courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina or their release from detention in Croatia.

The problem of unavailability does not affect just those like Juric, who have already been convicted, but also those who are defendants in ongoing cases. The problem affects approximately 38 per cent of war crime cases across Bosnia and Herzegovina at all jurisdictional levels, according to an expert report for the OSCE.

The reasons for their unavailability are manifold. Most of them are living in neighbouring countries, such as Serbia and Croatia. However, Croatia is not willing to cooperate with investigations into and extraditions of its citizens. In 2015, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic publicly stated that Croatia will not act on “political indictments” from neighbouring countries.

The government of Croatia has rejected all claims that the Croatian Army was involved in crimes during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and gave instructions to its Ministry of Justice to take into account the “vital interest of the Croatian state” when deciding on requests from the Bosnian judiciary for assistance in investigations or arrests.

Since then, the Bosnian prosecution representative said, most of the requests sent by the State Prosecutor’s Office to the Croatian Ministry of Justice have been rejected on the pretext of being detrimental to Croatian ‘state interests’.

Croatian citizens are also protected from extradition by the country’s constitution, which says that they cannot be extradited “except in the execution of a decision on extradition or surrender made in accordance with an international treaty or the acquis communautaire of the European Union”.

As Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a member of the EU and Croatia has no treaty with Bosnia and Herzegovina on extradition, dual citizens, such as Juric, are safe from being extradited. Many defendants deliberately relocated abroad and cannot be extradited by law, which is a major obstacle to processing war crime cases.

Defendants allowed to flee

According to the OSCE, of the 245 cases in the post-indictment phase at the end of 2021, 100 defendants in a total of 94 cases were inaccessible to the relevant domestic courts.

There are also cases where instead of being arrested, the defendant was allowed to leave the country. In April 2022, the former commander of the Third Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sakib Mahmuljin was sentenced to eight years in prison for having command responsibility for war crimes committed by the El Mujahideen paramilitary force which was under his command. The Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina had not imposed any restrictions on his movements and he left the country for Turkey before he was sent to serve his sentence.

Serb war victims’ associations were outraged that Mahmuljin was able to leave the country and accused the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina of allowing him “to escape under the pretext of [medical] treatment” by not imposing restrictive measures to prevent him from going abroad and not ordering him to go to jail directly after the final verdict was issued.

The court’s actions in the case of Mahmuljin perhaps explain why almost 30 per cent of indictees or convicted war criminals are unavailable for prosecution and/or to serve their sentences. Juric also left the country since there were no measures in place to prohibit him crossing the border.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 30 years after the war almost 600 cases involving over 4,500 suspects remain unresolved. With the passage of time, these cases are becoming harder to solve.

Numerous suspects have never been arrested, nor have proceedings been brought against them. Some of these suspects have been living and working in Bosnia and Herzegovina and some in other countries, while others may have died by now.

A study from 2019 revealed that at least 20 suspected perpetrators had died while awaiting trial or during the trial. On top of that, the age of the defendant becomes a mitigating circumstance, so many war crime suspects received lesser sentences because they were arrested when they were already elderly and often suffered from some medical condition.

Meanwhile, Juric remains at large. His victim, Lola, showed me his profile on Facebook. She scrolled through with her right index finger. “Look, he put all his personal data here He also wrote that he was a member of the HVO…”

We both stared at Juric’s profile photo. He was beaming with happiness.

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