TUZLA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Bahira was 14 when she was repeatedly raped by Bosnian Serb soldiers who attacked her Muslim village early in Bosnia’s 1990s war. She barely escaped execution, and has spent the past two decades trying to overcome her trauma.
Then, on her birthday last year, she received a court fine amounting to six months’ worth of disability benefits that she lives on. She had to pay court fees for a war reparations claim that she had actually abandoned years ago.
“When I saw the figure of 3,000 Bosnian marka (1,500 euros or $1,827) and a warning that I would be detained unless I paid it, I fainted,” said Bahira, who declined to give her real name.
“That day, I tried to commit suicide, said Bahira, now in her 40s and married with two children.
Bahira, among the estimated 20,000 victims of sexual violence during the 1992-95 war, was fortunate enough to get free legal aid from a non-government organization that helped her trim her bill to 600 marka, which she eventually paid.
But thousands of other war survivors, mainly Muslim Bosniaks, have been hit by hefty fines after their reparation claims were rejected by courts in the autonomous Serb region of post-war Bosnia, and have been unable to obtain legal aid.
Most are jobless, in poor health since their war ordeals and unable to pay the fees. Those who cannot face seizure of their property or part of their monthly income, if they have any.
“These victims are generally very vulnerable, and they are now going through re-traumatization that will be difficult to remedy later,” said Adrijana Hanusic-Becirovic, a lawyer with Trial International, the NGO that helps victims such as Bahira.
The problem arises from Bosnia’s failure to enact a nation-wide law covering victims of torture, resulting in differing treatment of reparation claims in its two autonomous regions, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic.
More than 100,000 people died in the fierce ethnic conflict between Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. Hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes and about 200,000 people were detained in camps where beatings and torture were common, with 10 percent of them dying in custody, said Jasmin Meskovic, president of war prisoner association.
Meskovic, whose group has helped some 30,000 people file lawsuits since 2007, said compensation claims were dismissed en masse after Bosnia’s Constitutional Court decided in 2014 to recognize statutes of limitations for torture offences.
This upheld a Serb Republic statute that required victims to have filed lawsuits within a maximum five years of the alleged crime to be eligible for reparations.
The civil procedure code was then amended to introduce fees for lawyers and public attorneys ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 marka. Federation courts adopted the same amendment.
Officials say the courts levy the fines to help recover costs of handling cases that are rejected.
“This has become a (form of) extortion,” Meskovic said. “The problem is for the (mainly Bosniak) victims who returned to live in the Serb Republic, barely make ends meet..., and then they come and confiscate their property, salaries and pensions.”
The United Nations Committee against Torture, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International have criticized Bosnia over its lack of an enforceable national reparation mechanism, saying this violates international law.
But efforts to pass supportive legislation in the national parliament have been repeatedly blocked by Serb deputies who say claims should come under regional not national jurisdiction.
Before the high court ruling, only a small number of victims won reparations cases and received compensation.
Most wartime detention camps were located in what is now the Serb Republic and authorities there fear that reparations claims, if granted, would overwhelm their budgets.
Last week, the Serb Republic assembly passed preliminary legislation on reparations claims but Bosniaks say it discriminates against them by setting numerous, onerous terms for non-Serbs to register as torture victims.
“One gets detained, beaten up, survives the torture and then 20 years later, one goes through a new torture,” said Behadil Dizdarevic, a survivor of two Serb-run detention camps who was ordered by a Serb court to pay more than 10,000 marka in fines.
“We are paying our dues for staying alive.”
Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; editing by Mark Heinrich