BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A Serbian appeals court on Thursday halted a landmark trial against eight former Bosnian Serb police officers charged with taking part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre — another legal hurdle in the Balkan state's struggle to come to terms with its wartime past.
The trial that started in December was the first time that a Serbian court has dealt with the killings by Bosnian Serb troops of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. It was Europe's worst single atrocity since World War II.
The proceedings were seen as a test of Serbia's pledge to deal with its wartime past as it formally wants to join the European Union — and as an important step in Balkan reconciliation efforts more than two decades after the Bosnian war ended.
The court in Belgrade said Thursday it had accepted the defense's contention that the charges against the eight were invalid because they were filed during the time when Serbia did not have a chief war crimes prosecutor. The ruling means the whole proceeding will have to start over from scratch, which could take months or years.
The appeals court said, according to the Serbian justice system, only the war crimes prosecutor can file war crimes indictments and conduct investigations.
Serbia had been without the war crimes prosecutor for more than a year after the previous one, Vladimir Vukcevic, retired. The new war crimes prosecutor, Snezana Stanojkovic, was appointed in May. She now has to file new charges before a new trial of the eight men begins.
Serbia actively supported and armed Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war that left over 100,000 people dead and forced millions from their homes.
The eight men were charged with participating in the killing of 1,313 Muslims in a warehouse in Kravica, a village outside Srebrenica, as they tried to escape the Serb onslaught. They were crammed into a warehouse in the village and then killed with grenades and machine guns in a rampage that lasted all night.
Among the suspects was special police unit commander Nedeljko Milidragovic, also known as "Nedjo the Butcher," accused of organizing the killings. The indictment said Milidragovic fired his pistol at those who still showed signs of life after the carnage.
The court's move on Thursday angered rights advocates and the victims' families.
"Serbia had not only failed to prevent ... but also aided the genocide and other war crimes against the Srebrenica victims," said Nemanja Stjepanovic, a researcher for the Belgrade-based rights group Humanitarian Law Center.
The center said in a report Thursday that it named 30 Bosnian Muslim refugees who crossed the border seeking shelter in Serbia after the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, but all were later handed over to Bosnian Serb forces, who killed at least 15 of them.
An association of the relatives of the Srebrenica victims said they will turn to the U.N. war crimes prosecutors and ask them to punish Serbia for not respecting the U.N. human rights conventions, and to investigate why the decision was made, according to the Serbian news agency Tanjug.
"The Serbian court did everything not to put the criminals to justice," said Murat Tahirovic, the head of the Srebrenica association.
The U.N. court in The Hague is winding down its operations and wants regional courts to take over several of pending cases.
Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist who now says he wants the country to join the EU and make peace with its neighbors, has faced accusations of stalling in his promises to punish those responsible for war crimes of the 1990s. Those lapses include not punishing the killers of three American citizens who were killed and dumped into a mass grave after fighting in Kosovo in 1999.
Vucic has carefully avoided calling the Srebrenica massacre a genocide despite the fact that several international court rulings have called it a genocide.
The eight suspects were apprehended in 2015. They were later released, despite the gravity of the charges, and attended the trial while at large.
"The criminals were allowed to come to the trial as if they were witnesses," said Munira Subasic, head of the Mothers of Srebrenica group, who came to Belgrade to monitor the trial when it began. "They walk free and live normally in Serbia."
"I don't have any expectations from this trial," Subasic, whose son was killed in the Kravica warehouse, said in December.
Jovana Gec contributed.