Prosecuting the organized crime rings of post-war Bosnia means chasing corrupt senior government officials and adjusting to life under "close protection." Worth it? Completely.
WHEN JONATHAN RATEL, LLB ’89, FIRST CAME TO SARAJEVO to work as an international prosecutor he thought he was a bit of an expert on the mostly-rebuilt Bosnian capital—to the extent that he wasn’t even fazed by the war-ravaged ruin that was to become his office. “It was literally a bombed-out shell—50-caliber machine gun holes throughout the building, mortar rounds that had exploded against the building.” Then he deadpans, “It was about what I expected.”
While the 44-year-old North Vancouver native—who’d been to Bosnia before in a previous assignment—wasn’t bothered by the physical scars of Bosnia’s brutal 1992-95 war, he soon discovered the more disturbing undercurrents of organized crime that would be his job to help stamp out.
On the surface, Bosnia’s recovery amazes the casual visitor. The smart shops springing up in Sarajevo, the repaving of some of the country’s notoriously potholed roads and the rebuilding of the blasted villages in the countryside all point to a country well on the way back from its devastating war. Pitting the country’s Croats, Muslims and Serbs against each other, the conflict left 150,000 dead and half the country refugees. But the US-brokered peace agreement deeply divided the country into two mostly ethnic entities—a Federation of mostly Muslims and Croats, and a Serb Republic. Both kept their own parliament, police and court system. Without state control over the police and courts, the same well-connected criminals and gangs that either committed war crimes or profited from the war were able to move into prostitution, drug trafficking, customs fraud and counterfeiting—with impunity. The same corrupt politicians that led the Bosnia into war also flourished. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Office of the High Representative—the international organization that’s run Bosnia as a de facto protectorate since the war’s end—decided to create a state-level court that could take on Bosnia-wide organized crime, economic crime and corruption.
That’s how Ratel, who’s on leave from the BC Crown counsel’s office, came to Bosnia. After a two-year stint in the prosecutor’s office at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, he was approached to join Bosnia’s new state court. He arrived to work alongside both Bosnian and other international prosecutors and judges. Colleagues say he cuts an eloquent black-robed figure in court. Outside court, with reporters, he chooses his words carefully, with responses ranging from “I can’t tell you that,” to “You’re on the right track,” to “Bingo.”
Ratel put a large prostitution ring behind bars in 2004. He’s now prosecuting a former Bosnian Serb justice minister, Momcilo Mandic, and three other powerful Bosnian Serbs for allegedly ruining Mandic’s bank by funneling depositors’ money into the accounts of political parties. Ratel will also try to prove that money also went to the shadowy network of safe houses and bodyguards that have kept the UN war crimes tribunal’s most-wanted fugitive—former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic—on the lam for more than 10 years.
“The work I did at The Hague tribunal is mirrored now with the same targets and suspects. I was surprised that they were all still operating,” Ratel says. He was also caught off guard by the reach of organized crime into the highest levels of government in the region.
For example, Ratel got a less than warm welcome in neighbouring Serbia when he asked a top justice official there to arrest the bank suspect Mandic, who was hiding out in the Serbian capital Belgrade at the time.
“(The official) asked me to leave his office, take my warrant for arrest and background materials, and to leave Belgrade immediately and never return,” Ratel says. “He said, ‘It is clear to me that you do not know who you’re talking about, because if you did, you would not have come to this building, to this ministry.’ That indicated to me that (Mandic) owned half the people in that ministry. I was actually stunned. I didn’t realize that the penetration of organized crime was at senior levels of government.”
Ratel soon faced a more serious threat than being kicked out of a Belgrade ministry. He’d been in Bosnia for about a year when international peacekeeping troops in Bosnia received information about a man who’d entered Bosnia from its western neighbour Croatia. The man was a local assassin ordered to do away with both Ratel and another Canadian colleague. Nearly immediately both prosecutors received what’s known as close protection—a handful of trained local police who act as drivers, bodyguards and constant watchful companions.
“It’s very invasive, it’s a loss of privacy,” he says. But in Sarajevo, where most diplomats and VIPs have entourages of Suburbans and large men sporting earpieces, Ratel says he’s got used to his more modest security detail, even to the point of joking, “Leaving the country is like being permitted off leash.”
His colleague Steve Kessler, a resident legal advisor for the US Justice Department, says that they leave when they can—whether it’s skiing at the former Olympic resorts around Sarajevo or going bowling at the military base outside town, or traveling, all of it helps take their minds off work.
Ratel finds little time to study the villainously difficult local Slavic language; Kessler and others once gave Ratel a hard time about it at his favorite restaurant in Sarajevo.
“The waiter made a bet that he’d buy Jon a steak if he knew 10 words, and Jon couldn’t come up with anything besides dobar (good), dan (day), molim (please), racun (bill),” Kessler says, laughing. “But since then he’s learned a little more.”
Kessler says Ratel has risen to the occasion in the face of the complicated criminal code and limited resources. At the same time, he has become a mentor to the young Bosnian lawyers with whom he works. With international prosecutors expected to leave Bosnia within five years, Mirza Hukejlic, a 26-year-old Bosnian legal associate with the state court, says the foreigners have brought renewed confidence in the judiciary. Besides the bank suspect Mandic, the court is also currently trying a former presidency member and a top-ranking judge. “These are people that everyone thought were untouchable,” Hukejlic says. He also notes that the ethnic tension has died down since the court’s early days, when, for example, a powerful Bosnian Croat politician’s arrest brought an enormous outcry from his compatriots.
“The climate has changed big-time,” Hukejlic says. “It’s the best thing that could have happened to this court. If people are arrested not because they’re Croats, or Muslims or Serbs, but because they’ve committed crimes, then our role here has been fulfilled. Mandic has influence that we can’t even imagine. (When he was arrested) we were scared, God knows what could have happened, but in the mainstream nobody reacted.”
Mandic showed off an expensive suit and a cocky attitude to the packed gallery at his arraignment on Feb. 21—and pled not guilty to all charges. His trial begins this spring and should conclude about nine months later.
“Without justice there’s no peace,” Ratel says. “Before I came (to Bosnia) I understood the importance of justice for individuals. Now I see the importance of justice in public life.” Despite the difficulties, Ratel says he would do it all over again. “As a prosecutor, coming to Bosnia is like arriving in a target-rich environment,” he says, grinning.
And Bosnia’s targets—whether they’re suspects in government corruption, mafia-type crime, or war crimes—are usually interrelated. Mandic has long been under suspicion for war crimes as well, because of his powerful role in the wartime Bosnian Serb government. And Mandic himself, Ratel hints over a coffee at the rebuilt state court’s noisy café, had no idea whether he would end up in the Sarajevo court or The Hague war crimes tribunal. Mandic had made the mistake last August of leaving Serbia for the neighbouring coastal republic of Montenegro, where he was arrested and driven to the border with Bosnia. Ratel and his team flew to the border in peacekeepers’ helicopters to bring Mandic back to Sarajevo.
“He was in a high state of panic, and when he saw me, he was highly relieved and extremely emotional,” Ratel says. When the reporter across the table, who’d interrupted several times with questions but got nowhere, asks why, Ratel asks a question of his own.
“Well, do you know why?”
The reporter makes a stab. “Because he thought he was going to The Hague instead of Sarajevo.”