A war crimes court starts its work Wednesday in Bosnia in a milestone for justice in the Balkan country following the 1992-95 war that witnessed the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.
Prosecutors in Bosnia can expect to try more war crimes cases
The Bosnian war crimes chamber in Sarajevo is expected to ease the burden of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague by taking some of its caseload. The opening ceremony on Wednesday morning was attended by the president of the ICTY, Theodor Meron, and its chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte.
The first indictments are expected to be transferred to Bosnia from The Hague soon.
The ICTY, set up by the United Nations, will wind up its work in 2010. With some 50 suspects still awaiting trial, it will have to transfer several cases to courts in the Balkans if it is to meet its target. Del Ponte said in December that she had asked for the transfer of seven cases to Bosnia.
Bosnia's 1992-95 war claimed over 200,000 lives and saw the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.
Paddy Ashdown (photo), high representative for the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia, has said the establishment of the new tribunal is "a major step forward to full statehood," proving that Bosnia is finally able to try serious war crimes cases.
Locals to replace internationals
Until now local courts in the Bosnian postwar political entities -- the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serbs' Republika Srpska -- have been authorized to try low-profile war crimes cases only after receiving approval from the ICTY in The Hague.
The Bosnian prosecutor's office will also deal with additional war crimes cases since UN prosecutors completed their own investigations last year. Initially, the chamber, part of the Court of Bosnia-Hercegovina, will be staffed mainly by international judges and prosecutors, with local legal officers gradually taking over.
Four Bosnian Serb indictees who del Ponte wants tried in Bosnia have opposed the transfer of their cases from T he Hague, where they are currently detained. Around 1,000 cases involving some 10,000 suspects at lower level Bosnian courts will also be reviewed and cases seen as particularly sensitive would be taken over by the war crimes court.
Croatia 's EU hopes dampened
Carla del Ponte
On Tuesday, del Ponte (photo) released a report again criticizing Croatia for failing to adequately cooperate with the ICTY.
"Despite all public and private assurances from Zagreb, Ante Gotovina remains within reach of the Croatian authorities and until such time as he is brought to The Hague, it cannot be said that Croatia is cooperating fully with the international tribunal."
The chief prosecutor's negative assessment puts a damper on Croatia joining the European Union. The country was due to begin entry talks on March 17, but the EU has suggested the start of negotiations is contingent on Zagreb complying with the ICTY's demands. EU ambassadors were expected to discuss how to proceed on Thursday.
Gotovina was indicted by the Hague-based UN tribunal for war crimes against ethnic Serbs at the end of Croatia's 1991-95 war. Zagreb has insisted it has no knowledge of Gotovina's whereabouts.
Kosovo leader lauded
Also on Tuesday, Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj (photo) resigned after being indicted by ICTY over his role as a guerrilla commander in the Serbian province's 1998-99 conflict. He said he would report to the court on Wednesday, reaping praise from the UN, EU and US for his prompt compliance with the tribunal.
"I assume that it was a well thought-out step and thus I hope that all those involved understand how important cooperation (with the tribunal) is," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters when asked about the developments in Kosovo.
"His actions demonstrate his deep concern for the future of Kosovo and its people," US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. Washington urged all parties in the Balkans to arrest and extradite all Hague suspects "as a prerequisite for full integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions."
Haradinaj remains a hero to many Kosovo Albanians who demand independence from Serbia and see him as a freedom fighter who helped liberate Kosovo from Serbian oppression.