Ongoing court cases to send individuals to trial for war crimes a quarter century ago sends a powerful message.
In most Western judicial systems, as far as I understand them, there is a legal phenomenon called a ‘statute of limitations’. In general terms, this means that a legal action (charges, a trial, etc.) must be brought within a certain time frame. Once that period has passed, it is no longer possible to seek justice for the crime in question.
I have also learned that, in Canada at least, only certain types of offences are subject to this limit. The more serious crimes, called indictable ones, are not covered in the same way. In other words, if you murder someone you cannot go on the run for decades in the hopes that the courts will no longer be able to charge you once (if?) found.
This is a good thing as most of us want those who engage in serious offences to have justice pronounced against them, even if it takes decades. There is, of course, at least one challenge in all this. The more time passes the more difficult it is to secure witnesses, let alone untainted crime scenes. Even if witnesses are still available, their memories can fade, making successful prosecutions hard. We must continually remind ourselves that everyone is entitled to be treated as innocent until proven guilty.
If you murder someone, you cannot go on the run for decades in the hopes that the courts will no longer be able to charge you once (if?) found.
In this vein I recall the trial of a Nazi guard named John Demjanjuk. He was alleged to have participated in the killing of Jews at the Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor death camps: he maintained he was a Ukrainian prisoner of war. After settling in the US after WWII and taking up work in an Ohio auto factory, he was arrested in 1981 and deported to Israel, where witnesses and an identity card of “Ivan the Terrible,” a sadist who had murdered thousands of Jews at Treblinka, had turned up. The photograph on the card bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Demjanjuk.
He was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death but that verdict was thrown out when it was learned that another Ukrainian was likely the notorious Ivan the Terrible. He returned to the States but the allegations persisted and he was deported to Germany in 2009 where he died three years later.
I recall one scene from the original trial where an elderly death camp survivor was certain that she was again faced with a heinous criminal. I remember asking myself how she could be sure after all those years. Then again, if I had been subject to such inhumane cruelty, I am sure the faces of those responsible would have been seared in my memory.
We are getting to the end of the line for Nazi war criminals. If there are any left they would be in their 90s or older. Many have been brought to trial and convicted, some solace for the survivors who saw so many of their families and friends die. Still, the process has been painful, both emotionally and from the perspective of ensuring a fair trial (yes, even monsters deserve a fair hearing).
Something quite similar and reflective of a much more recent set of crimes against humanity is taking place in the Balkans, at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Most of my readers must still remember the atrocities that erupted after the dissolution of Yugoslavia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A civil war among Serbs, Croats and Bosnians led to concentration camps, mass rapes, massacres of civilians and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale.
A few trials that have made the news lately
Efforts to locate – or in some cases secure as many criminals were hiding in plain site, protected by their own governments – are ongoing and a few trials have made the news lately, including:
- Rajko Kusic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Rogatica Brigade, who is accused of having helped in the killing of more than 150 people as well as forced relocations and unlawful detention, will appear in a Belgrade court in December;
- The Bosnian State Prosecutor has filed an indictment against Former Territorial Defence force commander Brane Petkovic was charged with failing to prevent an attack on civilians in the village of Lozje near Gorazde in 1992 that left 16 Bosniaks dead;
- Former Bosnian Serb reservist policeman Dusan Culibrk is accused of involvement in the murders of 44 prisoners who were taken from the Omarska detention camp and killed in the Bosanska Krupa area in July 1992, and;
- The Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague has accused former Kosovo Liberation Army chiefs, including recently-resigned President Hashim Thaci, of attempting to interfere with potential prosecution witnesses ahead of their impending trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Four men are charged with a series of war crimes and crimes against humanity including illegal detentions, torture, murder, enforced disappearances and persecution from at least March 1998 to September 1999.
Kusic is accused of commanding and participating in attacks on the civilian population in which victims were murdered, forcibly relocated, unlawfully detained at detention facilities where they were beaten, mistreated, taken to work or to unknown places after which they have since been listed as missing.Bosnian Prosecutor
These trials will suffer to some extent from the same challenges the Nazi ones did: the passage of time (although not as much as in the case of Demjanjuk), uncertain witness testimony, and destroyed evidence and crime scenes. Gaining convictions will be difficult.
None of this should imply that we should not try. Some crimes are so horrible that they need to be pursued. The massacre of thousands and the attempts to erase whole peoples cannot be ignored. No ‘statute of limitations’ can be allowed to apply here.
I wish the prosecutors every success. While we must ensure fair trials we must also ensure the guilty go punished.