Janet Rabin

Janet Rabin (Women in Black from Serbia): Janet’s love of Slavic and Balkan culture was sparked by a summer school Russian class that she took in elementary school. She received her undergraduate degree in International Relations and French at Mount Holyoke College. As a student she spent a month studying at the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan studies in Sarnath, India. After living and working for a year in Edmonton, Canada, Janet returned to her hometown of Tucson, AZ to work as Community Outreach Coordinator at the International Rescue Committee. Here she worked with refugees from Bosnia, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, and Iraq. At the time of her fellowship, Janet was a Master's student at Georgetown University concentrating in International Development. After her fellowship, Janet wrote: "This was my first time being part of an activist movement, and it was an invaluable opportunity to gain perspective on the nature and interaction of concepts I usually deal with in a much more abstract fashion.”

Confronting the Past: The Special Court for War Crimes in Belgrade

20 Jun

One of Women in Black – Serbia’s main activities related to transitional justice is monitoring the trials of those accused of war crimes during the Bosnian War and in Kosovo. While many know of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the Hague, there is also a Special Court for War Crimes in Belgrade. The ICTY handles the cases of the major players such as Slobodan Milosevic (who died in custody), and Vojislav Seselj (who also happens to be the head of the Serbian Radical Party). The Special Court in Belgrade tries lower-level army and police officials, who are nevertheless accused of serious war crimes. One infamous case is the trial of 5 members of the Scorpions, a Serbian paramilitary group, who were captured on video murdering 6 Bosnian men in Srebrenica.

The trial I observed was for crimes committed at Suva Reka, a town in Kosovo, on March 26th, 1999, at the onset of the NATO bombing campaign. Eight members of the Serbian special police are accused of massacring 48 people at a pizzeria, all but one of them from the Berisha family. The victims ranged from children, to a pregnant woman, to an elderly person of 100 years. I visited the court with several members of Women in Black, including activists who have been monitoring this trial since it began in 2006.

We were there for over three hours, and my colleagues did an excellent job of translating, but I was obviously not able to absorb everything. Therefore I am going to keep my commentary and analysis very basic, because I want to be careful when discussing such a simultaneously important and convoluted subject. I hope that anyone reading this who has anything they can share on the subjects of war crimes trials, transitional justice, or even courtroom procedures would comment on this post and provide additional information or resources.

The first thing that struck me was the physical set-up of the courtroom. I freely admit that my exposure to courtrooms in the United States has been confined to the cinematic variety, so my ability to make comparisons is limited, to say the least. The accused, the witnesses, the lawyers and the judges were all separated from the audience by a wall of bulletproof glass. The accused sat between the audience and the rest of the courtroom, in a small chamber with bars. There were three judges, no jury. The judges were two females, one male, and no one of them wore robes or wigs or any sort of attire marking their status. The witness stood at a podium facing the judge, his back to the audience, and when the lawyers questioned him, they did so from behind their tables arranged around the side of the room.

The thing that shocked me the most was when Radoslav Mitrovic, the man accused of being responsible for the deaths of 48 people, walked right out into the court room (after being let out of the barred area by a guard) and began to converse with the witness and the judges, disputing several points that had been made. He was wearing no handcuffs, no prison clothes. Am I suffering selective amnesia? Is that normal? Maybe I should watch some old footage of the O.J. Simpson trial and see how he was allowed to comport himself in the courtroom…

Several of the incidents that surprised me turned out to be routine occurrences during this trial. Women in Black activist Milos Urosevic has written accounts of similar events taking place during earlier sessions he monitored. For example, at one point during the trial I attended, one of the defense lawyers disparaged the lawyer representing the victim’s families, Natasa Kandic, repeating “She’s not a lawyer, she’s not a lawyer – she’s nothing.” Urosevic has reported on similar verbal assaults, in which defense lawyers said that Kandic “isn’t an expert…She can’t ask questions…We demand her exclusion from the courtroom.” (quoted from his essay “From Organized Crime to an Organized Lie: On the trial of Suva Reka in the Women in Black publication Women for Peace 2007, pp. 135-136) Kandic is an internationally celebrated human rights activist and lawyer, based at the Humanitarian Law Center, and was recognized in Time Europe’s Heroes List in both 2003 and 2006. The 2006 profile was written by Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the ICTY.

It is this type of refusal to confront the past that Women in Black works to combat through their education and advocacy efforts. It was alarming and disheartening to see first-hand the state of denial, the sort of alternate reality that exists in a substantial portion of post-war Serbia. It made me wonder what lies I choose to believe – and it also reinforced to me how important it is that Women in Black continue their work.

Posted By Janet Rabin

Posted Jun 20th, 2008

1 Comment

  • Julie Coryell

    June 22, 2008


    Dear Janet, Your words are moving and evocative. I recommend reading Desmond Tutu’s two books, No Future without Forgiveness and God Has A Dream. Also the account of one of his staff members whose name I cannot locate, but whose book is powerful and titled, A Human Being Died That Night. A glimmer of remorse is essential to cracking open the hearts and hope for reconciliation. Wonderful videos. Thank you. More power to you! With love, Julie

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