More than 20,000 survivors of wartime sexual violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina are still being denied justice, Amnesty International said in a new report released on September 12.
A quarter of a century after the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslav republic, the report decried what it called "the devastating physical and psychological consequences of these crimes and the unjustifiable barriers preventing women from accessing the support they need and the legal redress to which they are entitled."
"More than two decades after the war, tens of thousands of women in Bosnia are still piecing together their shattered lives with little access to the medical, psychological, and financial assistance they desperately need," Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Europe Director, said in a summary of the report's findings.
Bosnia's declaration of independence in 1992 helped spark the 1992-95 conflict that left almost 100,000 people dead and displaced more than 2 million.
The Amnesty report, which the human rights group said was based on research conducted over two years, reveals how systemic obstacles and a lack of political consensus have consigned a generation of survivors who were raped during the conflict to penury and hardship.
As part of a campaign of intimidation and ethnic cleansing during the war, thousands of women and girls were subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence by military and paramilitary groups.
Many were enslaved, tortured, and even forcibly impregnated in so-called "rape camps," according to the report.
"I don’t trust anyone any more, especially not the state. They all failed me. I live only for my son. He is the light of my day. As for me…this is not life. This is more like being on a life support machine," the report quotes one survivor, Sanja from Tuzla, as saying.
Despite the atrocities, less than 1 percent of the total estimated number of victims of sexual violence war crimes have seen their cases brought to court since war crimes trials began in Bosnia in 2004, the report said.
Courts in the western Balkan nation have completed only 123 cases involving sexual violence charges, although the number of prosecutions has increased in recent years. “More must be done to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice,” the report said.
In some jurisdictions, it said convicted perpetrators benefit from provisions allowing their sentences of 12 months or under to be converted into fines.
"This practice virtually allows those convicted for the crimes of rape and sexual violence to 'buy' their time out of prison," the report said, detailing at least two cases where perpetrators found guilty of rape and other sexual crimes signed plea bargain agreements or received reduced sentences and then paid fines to avoid imprisonment.
"Considering the extraordinary obstacles that they have to overcome in order to testify in court, victims perceive sentences that do not reflect the gravity of the crimes committed against them as a new punishment and an additional source of distress," the report said.
To boost survivors' confidence that justice will be served, the state needs to strengthen witness protection and adopt a program for victims of sexual violence that includes compensation, Amnesty said.
"Bosnia-Herzegovina lacks a comprehensive statewide rights-based framework for redress for civilian victims of war, including survivors of wartime sexual violence," the report said.
"As for Bosnian society, which is still reeling from the consequences of the devastating war, the slow and insufficient justice fosters the sense of impunity and undermines citizens' confidence in the criminal justice system," it added.