Closing in on Balkan Criminals

Bosnia and Herzegovina is due this month to annul one of the biggest post-war legal absurdities with Croatia and Serbia by signing agreements that will finally allow the punishment of convicted criminals holding dual citizenship, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.

A number of people suspected of or indicted for various crimes committed in Bosnia currently reside in Serbia and Croatia, where they hold dual citizenship, and placing them out of the reach of the Bosnian judicial system. It is a legal loophole that has allowed many to avoid serving prison sentences. But that is all about to change.

On 10 February, the justice ministers of Bosnia and Croatia signed an agreement calling for anyone sentenced before a court in either country, regardless of which they reside in, to serve out sentences in either. Effectively, this means that if a convicted criminal is sentenced by a Bosnian court to a term in prison, the convicted will no longer be able to seek safe haven in Croatia, but will be obliged to serve out the term there.

Under the previous agreement from 1996, convicted criminals had to give their consent in order to serve their sentences in the country to which they fled, and that protection is now eliminated. The new agreement, which takes effect immediately, does however give convicted criminals the choice of where to serve their sentences: Bosnia or Croatia.

A 14-year legal black hole

For 14 years, a legal loophole has allowed hundreds of criminals holding dual Bosnian and Croatian or Serbian citizenship to avoid justice by simply skipping across the border, as local laws prohibited the extradition of citizens to other countries.

However, the extradition ban remains in place thanks to some tricky constitutional gaps. In order to enable extraditions, for instance, Croatia would have to change its constitution, while Serbia and Bosnia would have to amend their criminal codes.

“Even though the agreement is not perfect, major progress has been made, since previously convicts could choose whether or not to serve out their sentences at all, while now they can only choose where to serve their sentences,” Bosnian Justice Ministry Secretary Jusuf Halilagic told ISN Security Watch.

Authorities have said that a similar agreement is in the works between Bosnia and Serbia by the end of the month. Croatia and Serbia, which do not have a dual citizenship agreement, are as such not under any pressure to address the issue, though there is widespread abuse of illicit dual passport holding among citizens of the two countries.

Freedom, a hop, skip and jump away

Of 282 people sentenced on the second instance degree by Bosnian courts, Bosnian Justice Ministry records show that 106 have found sanctuary in Croatia, 100 in Serbia and 24 in Montenegro. The whereabouts of the remaining convicts are unknown.

At the same time, 46 people convicted by Croatian courts are believed to be currently hiding in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

All together, those found guilty by Bosnian courts have been sentenced to more than 520 years in prison. Among them are politicians accused of abuse of office, war criminals, doctors convicted for bribe-taking, corporate figures and even many convicted for minor crimes and sentenced to only very brief prison terms.

Among those convicts taking advantage of the legal loophole is Ivan Bender, former head of Bosnia’s Federal Retirement Fund. He was convicted in 2003 to four and a half years in prison for embezzlement and since then has lived in the Croatian capital of Zagreb.

Among many other examples, Croatian cardiologist Ognjen Simic, sentenced to 10 years in prison for 18 counts of receiving bribes over the course of eight years in practice, fled to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo just ahead of his sentencing.

According to Halilagic, because the agreement has taken effect immediately, Bosnian and Croatian authorities are wasting no time in rounding up those who have so far evaded prison. Indeed, some of the convicts, seeing which way the wind is blowing, have even contacted the Justice Ministry to indicate in which country they would prefer to serve out their sentence.

And when Bosnia and Serbia seal a similar deal, Bosnian authorities are hoping, first and foremost, to get their hands on Bosnian Serb paramilitary commander Radovan Stankovic.

Stankovic was sentenced in late 2006 to 20 years in prison by the Bosnian Court for war crimes, including the mass rape of girls and women. He was imprisoned at the scene of his crimes in the Bosnian city of Foca, from whence he escaped a few months later during a routine dental checkup. Stankovic fled to Serbia, where he holds dual citizenship, and remained untouchable.

More loopholes

However, even though the agreement is a positive step, there are some major flaws. Its reach is not a widespread as some authorities would like, and high-profile politicians and war criminals may still enjoy their freedom.

The issue of those sentenced in the first instance (as opposed to final verdicts following the appeals process) remains unresolved. And authorities estimate that in all three countries combined, these cases could number over 1,000.

One such case is that of wartime Croatian army commander and the former deputy in Croatia’s Parliament Branimir Glavas, who fled from Croatia to Bosnia last May following the pronouncement of a first-instance verdict against him in Croatia. The Croatian court found him guilty of the torture and murder of Serb civilians in Osijek during the war and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Since his parents originate from Bosnia, Glavas managed to acquire the Bosnian citizenship shortly before his verdict and successfully avoided deportation, even though he was briefly detained by the Bosnian police, but released after he presented his Bosnian documents.

Perhaps even a more profound example is the case of the abuse of dual citizenship by a former Bosnian Croat political leader and member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Ante Jelavic.

In October 2005, Jelavic was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Bosnian court for economic crimes, embezzlement and abuse of office. Just one day before his sentencing he fled to Croatia, where he later moved his family, selling off his properties in Bosnia.

After spending almost two years in custody during his trial, the court ordered his release on €256,000 ($347,440) bail. In rare interviews with Croatian media, Jelavic has said he would not return to Bosnia and did not trust the country’s judicial system – the judicial system of a country he ruled over as a member of the presidency.

After his defense team appeal, his sentence was revoked and a new trial was requested. But it was never held, and since then, Jelavic has never stepped foot on Bosnian territory, at least not voluntarily.

In April last year he was kidnapped near his home in Zagreb and held at an unknown location somewhere in southern Bosnia, according to the trace of a call he made to his family.

However, he mysteriously managed to escape from his kidnapers within 24 hours and then illegally crossed the border into Croatia, where he showed up at a local police station and was taken back to Zagreb and given police protection.

Jelavic told Croatian media that he had been kidnapped by the members of Zagreb underground, which demanded €1 million in ransom or be handed over to Bosnian authorities.

“Legally, Jelavic is a free man now pending the new trial, and the only thing Bosnia and Herzegovina can do is to transfer the indictment to the Croatian prosecution for them to try him,” Halilagic said.

Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia all wish to join the EU, and demonstrating judicial effectiveness is a key factor in these membership bids. For years now, the EU has identified the practice as a huge obstacle in the fight against organized crime in the region, as well as for the prosecution of war crimes by national courts.

The latest agreement was welcomed by EU countries and is widely seen as an important step toward ending the misuse of non-extradition laws in western Balkan countries by convicted or suspected criminals, including those who are responsible for organized and war crimes.


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