Last Friday, a former Bosnian-Serb policeman, Darko Mrđa, was sentenced to 15 years in prisonby the Court (of BiH) for crimes against humanity. He was appearing for the murder of Said Sadić, who was abducted from his home in August 1992 and has since disappeared.
“You will not need your shoes anymore,” Darko Mrđa told Said Sadić when he came to his home in the village of Tukovi, before killing him two kilometers away. The disappearance of Said Sadić is one of 50 cases of enforced disappearances brought by TRIAL International before the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In two decisions issued by the Constitutional Court, in 2012 and 2013, local authorities were ordered to conduct thorough and comprehensive investigations into those enforced disappearances cases.
In 2016, as a result of those decisions, an indictment was raised against Darko Mrđa for one of the reported enforced disappearance cases, and he was arrested. Darko Mrđa had previously been sentenced to 17 years imprisonment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for participating in the killing of 200 civilians, and in the commission of inhumane acts (in the form of murder attempts) against 12 other civilians in Koricanske Stijene, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on 21 August 1992.
The conviction of Darko Mrđa for the murder of Said Sadić is great news for returnees and families of missing persons who felt intimidated by his return to Prijedor (his hometown). TRIAL International welcomes his condemnation as a major victory in the fight against impunity for crimes committed during the war.
Each year, thousands of migrants from Central America disappear in Mexico, adding to the already staggering number of disappeared Mexican nationals. With a new government voted in and a growing international focus on migrations in Latin America, can Mexico effectively tackle this crime?
TRIAL International and the Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho are filing a report to the UN on enforced disappearances in Mexico. In which context does this submission occur?
Gabriella Citroni, Senior Legal Advisor at TRIAL International: The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) is examining the situation of Mexico for the second time since its creation. The State presents its report to the CED, and civil society organizations may file additional reports to provide an alternative viewpoint. The particularity of our joint report is that it focuses on the enforced disappearance of migrants in Mexico.
How has the situation evolved since Mexico’s last examination in 2015?
Ana Lorena Delgadillo, Executive Director of the Fundación para la Justicia: In the last years, we have witnessed an increase in enforced disappearances, prompting us to assert that Mexico is failing to its international obligations. This is paradoxical, because in 2017 the country passed extremely progressive legislative measures (known as the General Law) to fight enforced disappearances. But these improvements have remained dead letter so far: the victims’ families are still lacking effective mechanisms to search for their love ones, and access to truth and justice.
Can you give examples?
Gabriella Citroni: The General Law could be one of the most comprehensive legal tools on enforced disappearance in the world. Two other measures, created under the advocacy of families and of the Fundación para la Justicia, are particularly progressive. The first was the creation of an interdisciplinary Forensic Commission specifically mandated to identify the mortal remains of the victims of three massacres that took place between 2010 and 2012, many of them migrants. The second was the Transnational Mechanism for access to justice, a provision for families in Central American States to seize Mexican authorities via its embassies and consulates – a crucial point given how difficult it can be for migrants’ families to access Mexican justice.
Ana Lorena Delgadillo: The problem is that some of these improvements remain theoretical. The new National Commission for searching the disappeared – created under the General Law – lacks sufficient financial or human resources. The families of the victims are still doing this work.
Access to justice for families outside the country has also stalled. The Transnational Mechanism for justice has been created but Mexico has no permanent staff dedicated to enforced disappearance in the Central American States the migrants are from (mainly Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala). The families’ requests must therefore go through visiting officials, who only come a few times each year. In the meantime, families are suffering daily from uncertainty about their relatives’ fate and whereabouts.
What do you hope the report will change?
Gabriella Citroni: On the positive side, I think there is growing awareness on enforced disappearance in Mexico, especially involving migrants. Another encouraging factor is that Mexico does have the legal arsenal to effectively prevent and eradicate enforced disappearance, and our report gives a very concrete roadmap to put it into practice. So if the political will is there, the authorities are well-equipped to initiate change.
Ana Lorena Delgadillo: There is also a political momentum: Mexico has just voted in a new government. We have met with its representatives and hope that they will take the crime of enforced disappearance seriously. Victims’ relatives are highly organized and incredibly courageous. They have always been at the forefront of the fight against impunity, often taking investigations into their own hands when the authorities failed them. The new government must pay head to the expertise they have developed, respect and improve the good practices such as the Forensic Commission and the Transnational Mechanism for access to justice, and lean on the international community for assistance. Given the scale of impunity in Mexico, only a joint effort has a chance to bring improvements.
The former head of the Guatemalan National Civil Police, who has just appealed to the Federal Court against his 15-year prison sentence handed down by a Genevan court, could face new charges for extrajudicial executions and the torture of fugitives in the “El Infiernito” prison in 2005.
Four Guatemalan government and security force officials were arrested in Guatemala on 29 October 2018. Carlos Vielmann, Minister of the Interior from 2004 to 2007, Stu Velasco, former Deputy Director of the National Civil Police (known as the PNC), and two others are now in custody. But among those summoned by the Public Prosecutor’s Office is also the former head of the PNC, Erwin Sperisen, who has appealed his conviction in Geneva for a similar incident that occurred in another prison.
The Guatemalan courts intend to investigate the involvement of the men in the “Gavilán plan”. On 22 October 2005, 19 prisoners escaped from the “El Infiernito” high-security prison. A plan was allegedly devised to find the fugitives and execute them. Seven of them were shot dead, and at least four others were reportedly tortured. According to the Guatemalan Public Ministry, the security forces were organized into two groups: the first official one was supposed to find the fugitives, while the second unofficial one was responsible for executing them. This second group was to stage an armed confrontation between the prisoners and the police, as a means of justifying the death of the former from an exchange of fire.
SAME EVENTS, FRESH CHARGES
Erwin Sperisen, a dual Swiss-Guatemalan citizen, was acquitted by a Genevan court for two of the “El Infiernito” fugitive killings. But the investigation by the Public Ministry and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG), which was based on 56 testimonies, autopsies, and ballistic and police reports, implicated him in the deaths of three other people, including two fugitives from the prison. At a press conference on 29 October, Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, affirmed that the unofficial group that executed the recaptured prisoners was headed by Carlos Vielmann and Erwin Sperisen. They were allegedly kept informed of the operations of both groups by Victor Rivera, now deceased, who was then adviser to the Minister of the Interior. Moreover, four recaptured prisoners testified to the torture they suffered. According to Mr Sandoval, three of them claimed to have been tortured by Erwin Sperisen himself.
“The investigation will continue. But if these acts are confirmed, they represent an important development that should be of interest to the Swiss courts, and could turn into new charges against Mr Sperisen”, says Philip Grant, director of TRIAL International, who underlines that Erwin Sperisen cannot be extradited. Mr Sperisen and Mr Vielmann had already been tried for other crimes, one in Switzerland and the other in Spain. Sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment by the Genevan courts for complicity in the murder of seven detainees in Pavón prison, will Erwin Sperisen have to answer for the murder of two of the “El Infiernito” prisoners, and acts of torture? In a video posted online, he reacted by declaring that he feels confident, and denouncing a political coup. Carlos Vielmann, acquitted in March 2017 by a Spanish court for his role in the Pavón assassinations, has reacted in the same fashion. It remains to be seen, in the face of such charges, if the conspiracy theory argument will convince anyone.
The first hearing in the transitional justice process for the Jaïdane case took place on Thursday 4 October 2018 in Tunis. Due to the social movement of magistrates that affected almost all the specialized Chambers, the Tunis Chamber, composed in part of substitute magistrates, decided to postpone the hearing after 45 minutes of introductory exchanges – in spite of 5 accused being present.
After the Tunis Court of Appeal gave its judgment in December 2017 and decided that the torturers of Rached Jaïdane were to be pursued for committing torture, the transfer of the case in June 2018 by the Instance Vérité Dignité(IVD) offers new hope for justice and for the conviction of the alleged perpetrators. When the case was brought to the IVD, it issued 9 indictments on 6 counts based on several articles of the Tunisian Penal Code.
Even though the crime of torture is imprescriptible under the provisions of the Tunisian Constitution, the Tunis Court of First Instance ruled on 8 April 2015 that the facts were too old. The alleged perpetrators thus remain free. This decision was subsequently confirmed by the Tunis Court of Appeal on 21 December 21 2017.
On 11 August 2017, the decision of the Committee Against Torture, issued following a complaint lodged by ACAT and TRIAL International, contradict the judgments delivered. It is fraught with meaning and demands in relation to the Tunisian justice system. While reminding Tunisia of the “obligation (…) to impose on the perpetrators of torture appropriate penalties in view of the gravity of the acts”, the Committee:
- Affirms that the Tunisian justice system cannot in any way retain its decision held in the Jaïdane case;
- Demands, in cases where judges cannot legally characterize acts of torture committed before 1999 (date of criminalization of torture in the Penal Code) as “torture”, that they retain a qualification reflecting the seriousness of the facts and permitting prosecution.
This decision constitutes a clear call to break with practices of impunity which, beyond the pain they inflict on the victims, constitute a blank check given to the Tunisian security forces, who continue today to resort to committing acts of torture and ill-treatment.
The story of Rached Jaïdane is emblematic of Tunisia’s torture system, the very one the post-revolution governments promised to upturn by providing justice to the victims. And yet…
Today, and despite its international obligations as well as the legal and institutional reforms introduced since 2011, the Tunisian state still fails to demonstrate a firm will to end impunity. In this context, the establishment of specialized Chambers represents a considerable hope of obtaining justice and creating a solid case law on which hundreds of other cases could be based.
In this context, the signatory organizations call on:
- The Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM) as well as the actors concerned to quickly replace the missing members of specialized chambers and train them;
- The specialized Chamber of Tunis to act with all due diligence to prosecute the alleged torturers in a fair trial.
- ACAT, Action des chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture;
- ASF, Lawyers without Borders;
- TRIAL International;
- OMCT, World Organization against Torture.
The former Gambian dictator’s death squads, known as “Junglers”, have killed at least 45 individuals in the region of Casamance in 2005, shows a joint report by TRIAL International and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Their bodies were then thrown in dry wells there and left to rot for years. The same wells could have been used for similar purposes for other crimes. Senegal may have a role to play in their relatives’ quest for justice. TRIAL International and HRW held a press conference in Dakar to present their findings.
Former Bosnian Serb policeman Dragan Janjić was found guilty of rape and sentenced to 7 years in prison for Crimes against Humanity. He had been charged with rape and sexual abuse of a woman, as well as with encouraging unlawful imprisonments of other Bosniak civilians. The facts go back to 1992, during the widespread and systematic attacks of the Republika Srpska’s army, paramilitary and police forces in Foča Municipality. Dragan Janjić took the woman and her family, and brought them to the police station in Miljevina (near Foča). Separating them, he took her to another room under threat, where he raped and sexually abused her.
In addition to the prison sentence, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina ordered Janjić to pay BAM 15,000 (EUR 7,588.22) to the victim as compensation for her physical and mental suffering. TRIAL International, which has been providing legal assistance to the victim since 2014, welcomes this decision.
“We remain committed to the goal of seeing every instance of conflict-related sexual violence being punished. This verdict is an additional confirmation that the work against impunity is worth fighting,” says Adrijana Hanušić Bećirović Senior Legal Advisor of TRIAL International.
Dragan Janjić is the sixth defendant successfully convicted for wartime sexual assault (with one more defendant on trial) thanks to the long-lasting and persistent efforts of the TRIAL International team in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the fight against impunity for atrocities committed during the 1992-1995 war. Furthermore, TRIAL International paved the way for compensation for victims in criminal proceedings in 2015. Since then, victims of conflict-related sexual violence received compensations in nine different cases.
Today’s victory does not mean that the fight against impunity for war crimes is over. “TRIAL International remains dedicated to its work on enhancing the rights of war survivors, including the fight against impunity as one of the most important aspects,” says Selma Korjenić Head of BiH Program of TRIAL International.
In 2016, TRIAL International successfully introduced an amendment to the State Law on Free Legal Aid which led to implementation of free legal aid by the Ministry of Justice of Bosnia and Herzegovina in compensation claims. The victim in the Janjić case was the first to benefit from this free aid.
The decade-long Nepalese civil war left an open wound. Those who try to break the silence on human rights violations committed between 1996 and 2006 tread on thin ice, as the authorities often tries to cover up its controversial past. Lenin Bista, a former child soldier, experienced this first hand.
Lenin had been invited to speak at a congress on social reintegration of youths who have lived in conflict zones. As he tried to board his flight, he was denied access to the plane on the grounds that he had been “partially blacklisted” since the very morning. He was told by the customs officer that “he had not received permission or recommendation from the competent authority to participate in the program”. There is no law requiring a Nepalese citizen to have official permission to travel abroad.
Lenin Bista, 27, is fighting -with the organization he has founded- for the social reintegration of former Maoist child soldiers. Many of them remained on the sidelines at the end of the civil war, following the government’s refusal to honor its promise and integrate them into society through employment. TRIAL International met Lenin Bista.
TRIAL International: What prompted the Nepalese authorities to issue a travel ban against you?
Lenin Bista: I am a Maoist veteran and a former child soldier. I have been speaking on the issue of child soldiers for the last seven or eight years. This has been hard to accept for the Nepalese leaders, since they too are former belligerents. The government tried to silence me several times by kidnapping and jailing me. I suppose they prevented me from leaving the country for fear that I would raise the issue of child soldiers at an international forum. They do not want this issue to be discussed outside the country.
You were supposed to attend a workshop on peace-building processes for youth in conflict areas. Do you think the government has tried to silence you?
The travel ban is a very clear indication that the government does not want this topic to be discussed abroad. They did not even make the effort to give a credible explanation. This is how determined they are.
A travel ban is a clear violation of your freedom of movement, as well as your freedom of expression. How would you describe the situation of human rights in Nepal?
The government wants to make everyone believe that the peace process has been successfully completed. It pressures all NGOs that argue otherwise. There are still many problems in the way the government is addressing the transitional justice process, but authorities are reluctant to address them. I think they are trying to use my case as an example. It sends an indirect threat to all those who want to publicly raise their voices demanding justice. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the armed conflict ended twelve years ago, I think that the situation of human rights in Nepal is very worrying.