SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Bosnia’s top court has scrapped court fines issued to rape victims and other survivors of the Bosnian 1990s war after they had reparation claims rejected, in a decision praised by rights lawyers and a victims association on Tuesday.
Thousands of war survivors including victims of sexual violence, mainly Muslim Bosniaks, have been hit by hefty fines after their claims were rejected by courts in the autonomous Serb region of post-war Bosnia.
Most of those fined are jobless, in poor health since the war, and unable to pay the fees. Those who cannot face seizure of their property or part of their monthly income, if they have any.
The Constitutional Court last month endorsed an appeal by a rape victim against rulings by two courts in the Serb Republic ordering her to pay 3,000 Bosnian marka ($1,890) plus interest in court fees, saying the rulings violated her right to a fair trial and her property rights.
The court said the rulings obliging a victim of war rape to pay fees for public attorneys over her reparation claim represented a “disproportional and unreasonable burden” for her.
“This is a very important step both for the appellant, a victim of sexual violence in war to whom the ruling is relating directly, but also for all other victims of war crimes who are in a similar situation,” Adrijana Hanušić Bećirović, a senior lawyer with the NGO Trial International which provided legal assistance to the victim, said on Tuesday.
Trial International is helping some of the thousands of such women who registered and underwent medical check-ups during and after the war, and who are still traumatised by their experience more than 25 years later.
Bosnia’s war prisoner association, which has helped some 30,000 of its members file reparation lawsuits, most of which were dismissed in courts in the Serb region due to the statute of limitations for torture offences, hailed the court’s ruling as “historic”.
“This (ruling) is very significant for all former camp detainees/torture victims who have filed reparation lawsuits and which are still under way, because it is applicable for all identical cases and should represent a turning point for Bosnia-Herzegovina institutions towards the war torture victims,” the association said in a statement.
In 2014, the Constitutional Court said it would recognise the statute of limitations for torture offences, upholding a Serb Republic statute that required victims to file lawsuits within five years of the alleged crime to be eligible for reparations.
Bosnia’s two autonomous regions, the Serb Republic and the Bosniak-Croat Federation, each have their own courts which treat reparation claims differently.
The Serb Republic courts recognise statutes of limitations for torture offences, while courts in the Bosniak-Croat Federation do not. There is no political will to adopt a nationwide law on the victims of torture, however.
More than 100,000 people died in the 1992-95 conflict between Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats.
Two million were driven from their homes, about 200,000 people were detained in camps where beatings and torture were common, and around 20,000 are estimated to be victims of sexual violence, according to data from war crimes courts and associations of victims. (1$ = 1.587 Bosnian marka)
Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Hugh Lawson