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Bosnia to compensate rape victims when attackers cannot

February 10th, 2021
topics: Women's rights
by: Katarina Panić
located in: Bosnia and Herzegovina
tags: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian War, sexual abuse, UN Committee against Torture, war crimes, women's rights

A woman named in a courtroom as A lived in a Bosnian village when the war started. It was the time one’s ethnicity could either save or cost them their life, depending on whose territory you happened to be in. This woman seems to have found herself in the wrong one.

In 1993, A was 32 and her daughter was 11. One day, an armed soldier had entered her house and, threatening her with a gun, forced her into his car. He drove her to the bus station and raped her. Subsequently, he repeated the rape. She got pregnant and decided to terminate the pregnancy.

The war ended in 1995. The silence remained for many more years. 

CODE OF SILENCE

In 2008, A started psychiatric treatment and had been diagnosed with permanent personality disorder symptoms and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. An expert found that her general quality of life has been permanently diminished by 25 percent due to her forever changed personality after the catastrophic experience.

At first, A did not report the rape, as she was afraid to do so while living in the area controlled by the enemy. Later, she did not feel comfortable speaking about her experience. Finally, she spoke out after other female rape victims did so. 

In many Balkan communities, rape is seen as a stain on the family's honour. The survivors are widely stigmatised and permanently scarred, maligned and excluded from society. They live with the burden of the blame for what happened to them as if they are the ones guilty of the rape, not the perpetrator. Therefore, it took A more than two decades to report the crime. 

In November 2014, the state prosecution raised an indictment against the rapist for war crimes against the civil population. In June 2015, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina found him guilty and sentenced him to eight years of imprisonment and obliged him to compensate the survivor with 30,000 BAM (roughly 15,000 euros) within 90 days. To this day, A has not been paid for non-pecuniary damages.

Discarding property to avoid fines 

The court found that A’s attacker had no assets under his name. It turned out to be an insurmountable obstacle for the national judiciary. All applicable remedies were used - with no success. 

Similar situations occur too frequently for it to be coincidental. Often, defendants are deliberately getting rid of their property in advance to avoid paying fines. They do this by transferring their property to their family members or next of kin or making fictitious transfer agreements. Moreover, they quit their jobs formally and continue to work under the radar to avoid their incomes cut by the court decisions.

Where the state fails, civil society takes over 

TRIAL International, a non-governmental organisation fighting against impunity for international crimes and supporting victims in their quest for justice, did their very best to assist A; the survivor of sexual violence finally received international recognition for her suffering. They brought her case before the highest international authorities. 

In 2019, the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) adopted a decision which stipulates that BiH should pay compensation, make a public apology to A, and ensure that she receives medical and psychological care immediately and free of charge.  

In yet another case that TRIAL International brought before The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the CEDAW Committee adopted its first decision against BiH last year, confirming that gender-based violence against women is a form of discrimination and torture. Additionally, the Committee stated there is no statute of limitations in war crimes, including the rape, to request the compensation. 

"Decisions such as that of the CEDAW, and the landmark decision of the CAT last year have a real impact: they inspire other victims. More and more survivors of sexual violence are empowered to speak out and are now seeking justice at the international level,” Lamija Tiro, a legal advisor from the BiH branch of Trial International, stated.

An apology costs nothing

The UN bodies issued historical decisions and condemned BiH for letting down survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.  

"It is time to implement them! BiH's institutions have to take up their responsibility," Matt Field, the British ambassador to BiH, stated, expressing his support for TRIAL's campaign and the implementation of the UN CAT decision. 

"If there is one thing that is easier to implement than passing new laws, reforming institutions and allocating funds, it is to apologise. It is a simple, yet the crucial gesture to lend a hand to those waiting too long. What are we waiting for?" Adrijana Hanušić Bećirović, a legal advisor from the BiH branch of Trial International, wrote in her blog for Al Jazeera Balkans.

Image by Sebastián Villar.

Article written by:
Katarina Panić
Katarina Panić
Author
Bosnia and Herzegovina
A girl bursts into tears while listening to other women recount their accounts of rape. In Bosnia, a European Community Investigative Mission concluded that 20,000 women and children were victims of systematic rape by the Serbs during the war.
© Sophie Elbaz / Contributor
A Bosnian Muslim woman cries by a grave of her father on 11 July, 2020 as newly identified victims are buried at the cemetery for victims of Srebrenica genocide in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Hercegovina.
© Getty Images / Stringer
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