BIRN Holds Meetings on Regional War Crimes Prosecution Cooperation

BIRN organised meetings of transitional justice stakeholders in Zagreb and Sarajevo in June to develop recommendations for improving regional cooperation in prosecuting crimes committed during the 1990s wars.

BIRN held meetings in Zagreb and Sarajevo with shareholders at the end of June as part of its Balkan Transitional Justice programme – representatives of victims’ associations and the judiciary, as well as NGO members and humanitarian law experts.

These closed expert meetings discussed the issue of regional cooperation between state authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia on prosecuting crimes from the 1990s wars.

At the meetings, participants raised their concerns about potential problems and offered possible solutions.

This input, along with input from meetings that wil take place in Belgrade and Pristina in early September, will be formulated into recommendations.

After all four meetings with stakeholders, one final conference will be held at the regional level in Sarajevo at the beginning of October.

The recommendations from the stakeholders’ meetings and the conference will be used for creating a policy paper for improving regional cooperation between states in prosecuting war crimes.

BIRN Interview Quoted During Ukrainian President’s Visit

Reporting on the visit by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Serbia,  Radio Free Europe – Balkan service reported that the tensions between Belgrade and the Ukrainian ambassador in Serbia, which had diplomatic consequences, arose in early November 2017 and that the trigger was ambassador Oleksandr Aleksandrovych’s interview with BIRN.

In the interview, Aleksandrovych said that “Putin does not care about Serbia”, claiming that Russia’s president is only using Serbia as “another instrument to destroy Europe”.

Aleksandrovych also stressed that that Serbia was not doing enough to stop its citizens from travelling to Ukraine to fight for pro-Russian forces in the conflict in the east.

The ambassador said that Russian propaganda and its secret services had played a huge role in attracting Serbian and other foreign mercenaries to Ukraine.

After BIRN interviewed the Ukrainian ambassador, tensions between Kiev and Belgrade rose.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called on Serbia to respect his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

After summoning the ambassador to Serbia back to Kiev for consultations on November 3, Ukraine’s government also urged Serbia to show respect for its sovereignty and integrity, and to deal with the issue of Serbs fighting for pro-Russian forces in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine.

Bosnian Officials Spend 4.5 Million Euros on Vehicles

Bosnian government institutions and public companies spent around 4.5 million euros on purchasing vehicles in the first six months of 2018, BIRN’s new database shows.

In the first six months of the year, around 4.5 million euros was spent on vehicles for government officials, institutions and public companies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to BIRN Bosnia’s new database.

Of this sum, 1.5 million euros were spent on cars, some of them luxury models. The other three million euros were spent on vehicles like fire trucks, ambulances and SUVs.

A total of 292 tenders were issued to purchase the vehicles, but in more than 70 per cent of the tenders that were fulfilled, only one company applied, the database shows.

Bosnian government institutions and public companies published tenders to purchase 563 vehicles during the six-month period, around half of which were passenger vehicles and SUVs.

So far, 106 tenders have been fulfilled to buy 213 cars – 128 of them new and 38 secondhand, and in the other cases details have not been made public.

The most expensive vehicle purchased in the first six months was for the medical faculty of the Mostar University, in a tender worth 50,000 euros.

Mostar medical faculty dean Milenko Bevanda first issued the tender in late 2017, but annulled it after receiving BIRN’s request for a comment about the purchase.

But in spring this year, Bevanda repeated the tender and bought a new vehicle worth 42,300 euros without taxes from the MRM company in Ljubuski.

BIRN’s database shows that in the first six months of this year, MRM won the most valuable tenders, worth over 375,000 euros.

Porsche BH from Sarajevo won the most tenders, valued at a total of 285,000 euros.

Of the 292 issued tenders in the database, BIRN marked 26 tenders in which the requested specifics of the vehicle are so detailed that they can limit competition or suggest a preferred manufacturer, which is against the country’s public procurement law.

In six tenders, the final value of the tender or purchase exceeded the amount which was planned.

The Bosnian Serb Interior ministry bought six used vehicles for more than 10,000 euros more than the estimated amount.

In the rest of the tenders, the demanded specifics of the vehicle suggest or sometimes directly state a particular model or manufacturer, which is against the public procurement law.

BIRN Bosnia published an analysis in December showing that around five million euros was spent on vehicles in 2017.

After BIRN’s reports about violations of public procurement practices, several institutions amended their tender specifications.

The database also contains a register for vehicles already owned by institutions and public companies, which shows that the average cost of a vehicle is around 25,000 euros.

The Bosnian presidency and the two entity presidents own a total of 54 cars, worth around 1.7 million euros.

The database can be seen here (Bosnian language only).

Few Kosovo Corruption Verdicts Lead to Jail Terms – BIRN

Only a small proportion of those found guilty of corruption in Kosovo end up in prison, the 12th court monitoring report produced by BIRN and Internews Kosova finds.

Few corruption-related court cases in Kosovo end with a prison sentence, BIRN Kosovo and Internews Kosova’s annual court monitoring report for 2017, presented on Tuesday, said.

Since the first such report, 12 years ago, the project has monitored over 10,000 court sessions, revealing important evidence of violations and failings within the judiciary in Kosovo.

Introducing the report, Labinot Leposhtica, from BIRN’s legal office in Kosovo, noted that only 32 of 254 court verdicts on corruption in 2017 resulted in prison sentences.

In most cases, those found guilty received conditional prison sentences or fines, Leposhtica added.

The report outlined numerous instances of light sentences – and of seriously prolonged corruption-related court cases.

Leposhtica also drew attention to procedural violations by judges, prosecutors and lawyers, which were witnessed during the monitoring.

The report was presented at a panel discussion on Tuesday, when the panelists discussed the main findings – including that few corruption cases in Kosovo end in prison sentences.

Jeta Xharra, BIRN Kosovo director, said that the past 12 years of court monitoring had revealed both progress and cause for disappointment.

She mentioned one notorious case, of Xhabir Zharku, former mayor of Kacanik, who after being convicted in Kosovo simply left the country and did not serve his prison sentence.

“The person you refer to is Kosovo’s shame, but such cases will not discourage us from supporting the judiciary. Such cases should not happen again,” Kosovo’s Minister of Justice, Abelard Tahiri, said, responding to Xharra’s words.

Tahiri said he saw BIRN as a welcome partner in his own work in the justice system.

The head of the Kosovo Supreme Court, Enver Peci, said judges and prosecutors had become more disciplined as a result of BIRN’s monitoring work over the past 12 years.

He said it was good that “the courts are not afraid of BIRN any longer; before, people were like, ‘Run! The BIRN people are here’ … whereas now we’ve become more disciplined because of you,” Peci said.

Hasan Shala, head of the Court of Appeals, talked about some of the worst flaws in the judiciary. “There are secret compromises between judges and prosecutors,” he admitted.

But he also mentioned achievements. “There were 160 cases related to corruption in 2017, 145 of which were closed during the year, so only 15 were left to be finished in 2018,” Shala noted.

Nehat Idrizi, head of the Kosovo Judicial Council, agreed with the findings of the report but said they were working hard on evaluating judges who since last year had been assessed by a professional commission.

“Last year, we started evaluating the judges’ performances; 66 judges have been evaluated, most of them have received a positive assessment, and only two or three were negative and had to undergo further training,” he said.

Idrizi said the low number of judges was a challenge when the number of unfinished court cases remained significant.

He also highlighted the lack of supporting staff for judges, arguing that they had an insufficient number of personal aides.

BIRN Kosovo Holds Inheritance Law Debate

BIRN Kosovo held a roundtable discussion on June 26 entitled ‘Moving forward with the package of laws on inheritance, addressing gender issues’.

The roundtable at the Palace of Justice in Pristina was intended to look again at suggestions made by civil society organisations about amendments to the laws on inheritance in Kosovo, which are seen as unfavourable to women.

Key speakers at the discussion included Lisa Magno, Acting Mission Director at USAID, MP Korab Sejdiu and Altin Ademi, advisor and chief of office to the Minister of Justice.

“USAID offers its full support on debate, discussion and passion about this issue,” said Magno.

She said it was very important that the package of laws should be moved forward.

“Without action, there will be no change,” she added.

MP Sejdiu affirmed that he and his colleagues stood ready to help and cooperate in order to improve the current situation of women in terms of inheritance, emphasising that the main issue is Kosovo society’s mentality about women’s roles.

“If, since they were in the womb, women have been at a disadvantage to men, this disadvantage will continue to follow them,” he said.

After remarks from the key speakers, the floor was opened up to a series of panellists – Nehat Idrizi, president of Kosovo Judicial Council, Enver Peci, president of the Supreme Court, Brian Kemple of the USAID Property Rights Programme, Hasan Shala, president of the Court of Appeals, Aferdita Bytyqi, president of the Basic Court in Pristina and Isa Kelmendi, a judge at the Supreme Court.

Addressing the issue of delayed inheritance, Kemple called for more activism and solidarity in society to help women by working on the recognition and implementation of their rights to inheritance.

Bytyqi called for the issue from men to be taken more seriously by men in Kosovo society.

“I call on those men who have an impact [on society], to seriously fight for this matter,” she said.

After the panel, the roundtable continued with an open discussion including prosecutors, lawyers, judges, parliament members, ministries, and civil society representatives.

The event ended with a request from MP Sejdiu to send any concrete suggestions about laws on inheritance to him, promising to try to push them forward together with his colleagues.

The moderators of the roundtable discussion, Kreshnik Gashi, editor and director of the TV programme ‘Justice in Kosovo’, and Labinot Leposhtica from the legal office of BIRN Kosovo, responded that these suggestions have been ready for a long time already and will be sent to Sejdiu.

New Partners for ‘Public Money’ Project in Serbia

Three civil society organisations were selected on June 11 as partners on the ‘Public Money for Public Interest’ project which is being conducted by BIRN Serbia, the Independent Journalism Association of Serbia (IJAS) and the Slavko Curuvija Foundation, funded by the European Union.

The organisations selected were the Nis Committee for Human Rights, the Omnibus civic association from Pancevo, and the Sumadija Centre for Civil Activism ‘Res Publika’.

Over the next year, these organisations will have the opportunity to determine what is in the public interest in their communities.

After a restricted call for five local civil society organisations that attended a training course in April, three of them were selected to continue working on the ‘Public Money for Public Interest’ project as sub-grantees.

The overall objective is to contribute to the participation of civil society in changing public policies related to media financing to reflect the rights and interests of the country’s citizens.

BIRN Summer School 2018 in Romania

This year’s BIRN Summer School of Investigative Reporting will be held from August 19th to 25th in Poiana Brasov, a Romanian resort best known for winter sports but also for hiking and other activities.

This is a great opportunity for all those who wish to improve their investigative skills and learn the latest tricks from media experts.

BIRN will be gathering some of the world’s best-known editors and trainers to teach the course members investigative tips and tricks.

Successful applicants will be provided with excellent possibilities for networking – and the possibility of getting a grant for a story idea.

The lead trainer on the course in Romania is one of the best investigative editors in the US, Reuters’ Blake Morrison, a three-times finalist for the Pulitzer investigative award.

Others include the New York Times senior journalist Christoph Koettl; co-creator of one of the best podcast series in US and winner of an Emmy and three Peabody awards Susanne Reber; Knight International Journalism Award winner and OCCRP editor Miranda Patrucic; European Press Prize winner Bellingcats’ Christiaan Triebert; ICIJ journalist Matthew Caruana Galizia and award winning BIRN’s investigative editor, Lawrence Marzouk.

BIRN-Backed Documentary Wins Washington Festival Award

The documentary film ‘Kosovo… Nazdravlje! Gëzuar!’, produced by the Association of Independent Journalists of Vojvodina and BIRN Kosovo, won the audience award at the Serbian Contemporary Short and Documentary Film Festival on June 10 in Washington DC.

The documentary, directed by Aleksandar Reljic, looks at the possibility of coexistence between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo.

In 2017, a Serbian far-right group called Zavetnici attempted to stop a screening of the film in Novi Sad, but the coordinators and the police prevented them.

The documentary originated from project ‘Real People – Real Solutions’, which addresses relations between Kosovo and Serbia from the perspectives of history, everyday life, and the future.

The project is a cooperation between the Association of Independent Journalists of Vojvodina, BIRN Kosovo and ZFD Forum Belgrade, with the support of the EU delegation in Serbia.

Four other movies have been shot as part of the same project.

The Serbian Contemporary Short and Documentary Film Festival is staged by the Orfelin Circle (Krug Orfelin) organisation.

Belgrade Insight Publishes Special Pride Month Issue

The latest issue of BIRN’s newspaper Belgrade Insight, published on Friday, is the first Serbian publication to join global celebrations of LGBT Pride Month.

The edition of Belgrade’s only English-language newspaper offers a feature on  Belgrade’s LGBT history, an interview with prominent drag performer Dekadenca, a guide to the city’s LGBT-friendly spots and a comment piece on why being ‘out’ in Serbia is still a big issue for many.

Pride Month is globally celebrated each June to honour the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, which were an important milestone in the LGBT community’s struggle for equal treatment.

The latest issue of Belgrade Insight also provides an analysis of planned infrastructure and beautification projects that are set to reshape the Serbian capital, as well as a list of recommended sports bars where fans can watch the football World Cup.

Conference Discusses Ombudsperson’s Role in Kosovo

The embassy of the Netherlands in Kosovo, ACDC and BIRN held a conference and discussion in north Mitrovica on June 12, to endorse the ‘Boosting the Role of the Ombudsperson in Watching Human Rights in Kosovo’ project, which is supported by the embassy of Netherlands and is being implemented by ACDC and BIRN.

At the conference, the panellists talked about human rights and the Ombudsperson’s role, then participants had the opportunity to discuss the topic with experts who are directly or indirectly involved in dealing with human rights.

The panellists were Gerrie Willems, the Netherlands’ ambassador to Kosovo, Mehdi Geci, a representative of the Ombudsperson, Tatjana Lazarevic, editor of the KoSSev news website and Ljubisa Bascarevic, a human rights activist.

Ambassador Williams said that the objective of the project is to raise public awareness and encourage people to report relevant information to the Ombudsperson.

Ombudsperson’s representative Geci said only two per cent of all citizens’ reports to the Kosovo Ombudsperson come from Serb cizens in the north, and they are mostly related to the usurpation of property and prolongation of judicial cases.

Lazarevic from KoSSev claimed meanwhile that human rights are being violated on a daily basis in Kosovo.