On Wednesday, June 10th, I had the opportunity to attend a session of the Special Court on War Crimes in Belgrade. Although I long ago learned that courtrooms are rarely as dramatic or exciting as they are often portrayed to be in popular American crime television shows, it was still striking just how ordinary the session was. The three judges spent approximately three hours questioning the witness, Draguten Ilic, who was testifying in support of the accused, Bracko Popovic. Popovic has been accused of war crimes in Zvarnik, Bosnia, where an estimated seven hundred local Bosnians were massacred in 1992.
I am a firm believer in the potential of transitional justice. If a post-conflict society truly desires to rebuild social trust, repair a fractured justice system, and build a democratic system of governance, transitional justice must play a significant role in the process. However, the system is far from flawless. The process can take years from start to finish as is apparent in this case: it has been seventeen years since the crimes have been committed. It takes time to gather evidence and build a case against a potential war criminal, especially when it is being done in a post-conflict society. We were sitting behind the relatives of the victims in the courtroom, and I just kept imagining what it must feel like to have to wait seventeen years for justice to even become a potential possibility. Of course, no conviction or trial will ever bring back their loved ones, but justice can often ease the healing process when it comes to deep wounds. Punishing crimes not only deters future malpractice, but also respects the dignity of all those who where victimized in the past. WIB engages in a philosophy they refer to as “feminist ethic of care” and a “gendered approach to justice”. One of the most important aspects of this approach is reaching out to the families of victims. As Stasa explains, “We care how the victims feel in Belgrade, where the crime was masterminded. We make sure they feel protected and safe with us. We want to alleviate their fear. In this way, we build trust and friendship and a policy of peace by ‘little’ gestures, as opposed to the ‘big’ heroic policies of the dominant discourse.” I witnessed these “little” gestures as Simran and I accompanied Stasa and the victim’s families on a stroll through Belgrade.
Nevertheless, I can’t fathom the frustration they were feeling as they were sitting there listening to the witness deny any knowledge of wrongdoing. Even when the judges presented Ilic with documents bearing his signature that proved he was aware of certain military decisions, he responded by admitting it was his signature but claimed he had no recollection of having ever seen these documents before. Most shockingly, Ilic, stated that it was the first time he was hearing of the crimes that Popovic was being accused of. Further, Ilic maintained that the victims could not have been civilians as his forces would have never shot them had they not had weapons on them. The judges seemed dubious of his arguments, but in a truly just system, all sides must be given a fair hearing.
Another aspect of the trial that stood out to me was the fact that Popovic stood up and questioned the witness himself even though he had attorneys representing him, something that would traditionally not be permitted in the American legal system. The questioning of Ilic took so long that the judges postponed the testimony of the second witness who was scheduled to also speak on June 10th to September 7th, further prolonging the process and the wait the relatives of the victims must endure on their long quest for justice and a semblance of peace.
It seemed like we were the only group there monitoring, which is somewhat disconcerting as such trials must be monitored by as many groups as possible to ensure fairness. Women In Black is contributing greatly to Serbia’s attempts at transitional justice by consistently and reliably monitoring all trials.
Posted By Donna Harati
Posted Jun 18th, 2009