BELGRADE, May 12 (AFP) - Serbia is not yet ready to prosecute its own war crimes cases and is in denial of the atrocities committed by Serbs in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, a US diplomat said Thursday.
"I do not believe that the political climate in Serbia is really favourable for equitable war crimes trials before local courts," US charge d'affaires Roderick Moore told a seminar here. "I do not believe that your society has accepted the magnitude of the crimes committed by the Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo."
Moore was speaking at a round-table discussion of war crimes issues organised by the US embassy and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Participants included judges, prosecutors, lawyers and non-governmental organisations.
But Anton Nikiforov, an advisor to chief UN prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, said the UN tribunal at The Hague was bogged down and would have to transfer some of its caseload if it was to meet its completion deadline of 2010.
"We are not convinced that we can finish all cases by 2010. ... The current plan is that some 10 cases or possibly more be transferred to the national courts," he said, adding that these would not be high-profile cases.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has long argued that Belgrade is ready to handle war crimes cases currently before the UN court, and trials should be transferred to local jurisdictions.
However Serbia's failure to fully cooperate with the UN tribunal is a persistent obstacle to its closer integration with Europe and NATO.
Moore cited opinion polls showing that some 50 percent of Serbians did not believe that the Srebrenica massacre -- when some 8,000 Muslims were murdered by Serb forces in Bosnia in 1995 -- really happened. Another 38 percent believed that former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, who has been indicted for genocide but remains on the run allegedly in Serbia, had no case to answer to.
"Your police, prosecutors and judges are the image of society. Can they be impartial, ready to find, charge and convict Serbs who have committed war crimes if your society doubts that those crimes were committed?" Moore asked.
Serbia has refused to arrest fugitive indictees but has delivered about a dozen mainly low-level suspects to The Hague in recent months through a programme of voluntary surrender, negotiated behind closed doors.
"We congratulate your government for the actions taken in recent times to obtain the voluntary surrenders of indictees, but the manner in which these surrenders were obtained was inappropriate," Moore said.
Judge Omer Hadziomerovic, president of the Association of Serbian Judges, identified a lack of political will to prosecute war crimes cases and the possible involvement of investigating police in the crimes.
"In recent years there have been problems to collect evidence and find witnesses for war crimes trials throughout the region," he said. "But there have also been subjective problems, meaning a lack of political will which can be seen in the strong propaganda that our side never committed crimes. "The problem also is that among those who have committed crimes are our police and soldiers, who now should be collecting evidence."