BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The opening of the landmark trial of eight former Bosnian Serb police officers charged with taking part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre was postponed Monday, reflecting hurdles in attempts to bring war crimes suspects to justice by Serbian courts.
The long-awaited trial at the War Crimes court in Belgrade is seen as a test of Serbia's pledge to deal with its wartime past and an important step in Balkan reconciliation efforts more than two decades after the Bosnian war ended.
Monday was supposed to be the first day of the trial. But it was interrupted over defense lawyers' demand for the replacement of the presiding three-judge panel, which rejected their request to reveal the names of protected witnesses.
A ruling on the defense motion is expected by Tuesday.
The proceedings will mark the first time that a Serbian court will deal with the killing of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb troops — Europe's worst single atrocity since World War II.
Serbia has pledged to punish war criminals to advance toward EU membership. Its current nationalist government has faced criticism for stalling on the pledge.
The eight suspects are charged with participating in the killing of hundreds of Muslims in a warehouse in Kravica, a village outside Srebrenica, as they tried to escape the Serb onslaught.
Around 1,300 were crammed into the warehouse in the village and then killed with grenades and machine guns in a rampage that lasted all night.
The group was apprehended more than a year ago. They were later released despite the gravity of the charges, pending the start of the trial, which has been repeatedly delayed over legal procedures.
"The criminals were allowed to come to the trial as if they were witnesses. They walk free and live normally in Serbia," said Munira Subasic, head of the Mothers of Srebrenica group, who came to Belgrade to monitor the trial.
"I don't have any expectations from this trial," said Subasic, whose son was killed in the Kravica warehouse.
Among the suspects is a special police unit commander, Nedeljko Milidragovic, also known as "Nedjo the Butcher," accused of ordering the killings.
Experts have warned that other war crimes trials in Serbia also have been marred by legal hurdles, slow proceedings and overturned verdicts in a number of cases, enabling suspects to remain free for years.
"I believe the justice system is convenient for them (war criminals)," Milica Kostic, of the Humanitarian Law Center group, recently told The Associated Press. "There is not a single aspect (of war crimes trials) without serious problems."
For nearly a year, Serbia's nationalist government has failed to appoint a chief war crimes prosecutor after the previous one, Vladimir Vukcevic, retired in January.
Vukcevic was instrumental in the capture of the accused masterminds of the Srebrenica massacres — Bosnian Serb political and military leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. They were charged with genocide at the Netherlands-based U.N. war crimes court, but many Serbs still view them as heroes.
The tribunal's chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, criticized Serbia at the U.N. Security Council last week for the refusal to hand over three ultranationalist politicians sought in contempt of the court.
Brammertz said that "there is little evidence Serbia is implementing its commitments to support war crimes prosecutions."