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, which had started in December last year, was the first time that a Serbian court 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 actively supported and armed Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war, which 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.
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 on 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.
The eight suspects were apprehended in 2015. They were later released, despite the gravity of the charges, and attended the trial while at large.