Bosnia’s serious internal political crisis casts a shadow over the country’s future, including its long-term aspiration to join the European Union. But alongside Bosnia’s political and constitutional uncertainty, the infringements that result from its counter-terrorism policies are largely unnoticed.
The issue is highlighted by events at an immigration detention-centre in Lukavica, where in December 2009 five inmates declared a renewed hunger-strike to protest their indefinite detention without charge. The Bosnian government says the men – who are of middle-eastern and north African origin - are a threat to national security, and has stripped them of the Bosnian citizenship they had acquired.
The background of their case is the presence in Bosnia of radical Islamists, some of whom were granted Bosnian citizenship after the war of 1992-95 in the former Yugoslav republic. Their presence in the country, and possible links to international terrorism, became an acute concern among western intelligence agencies after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the wars that followed.
In 2003, United States agencies abducted six men of Algerian origin in Bosnia – three of them Bosnian citizens - and transferred them to detention at Guantánamo. It was only in December 2008 that the three were allowed to return to Bosnia; of the others, two are now in France and one remains at the US prison in Cuba.
The Bosnian government’s own worries about terrorism and the role of some of the fighters-turned-citizens on its territory led it in 2005 to establish a special commission to review decisions to grant citizenship by naturalisation. The government says that the commission is charged with uncovering procedural irregularities, but it has the authority to revoke Bosnian citizenship without a fair hearing and such expansive powers that even harmless clerical errors can be grounds for deprivation of citizenship.
To date, the commission has stripped about 300 people of their Bosnian citizenship. The hearings have taken place in secret and the reasons for revocation were not given. Some of those affected have left Bosnia, and the others are subject to deportation.
In addition, a law passed in 2008 allows for indefinite detention of non-citizens (a category that, of course, includes former citizens) on national-security grounds. The Bosnian authorities detained six men in this category (of Syrian, Algerian, Tunisian or Iraqi origin) in October 2008 and June 2009. So far, none has been charged with a crime, and neither they nor their lawyers know the reason for their detention because the evidence is secret.
The men first began a hunger-strike in Lukavica on 6 October 2009, the anniversary of the arrest of the best-known figure among the group, Imad al-Husin (also known as Abu Hamza al-Suri). All experienced significant weight loss in subsequent weeks, and four required intravenous feeding.
Benkhira Aissa won his appeal for a restoration of citizenship, and he was released on 12 November. The five who remain in Lukavica have similar appeals pending. But there appear to be no outstanding deportation orders against them, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg in 2008 asked Bosnia-Herzegovina not to expel Imad al-Husin pending the resolution of his case. Nonetheless, they remain in detention with no end in sight.
The ECHR confirmed in February 2009 that the United Kingdom’s (now revoked) policy of indefinitely detaining foreign terrorism suspects on the basis of secret evidence violated fundamental human rights, including by discriminating between citizens and non-citizens. The court’s grand chamber emphasised that fair-trial rights require the government to inform suspects about the details of the case against them.
The Bosnian government would do well to follow the ECHR’s ruling by either charging the five men with a crime based on evidence it makes public or releasing them without further delay, and in addition repealing the provisions that allow for indefinite detention without charge. It should also conduct a transparent and independent review of the work of the citizenship commission, including giving those who have been deprived of their citizenship a right to a fair hearing in an independent court.
Bosnia continues to look to the west, especially the European Union, for guidance and support. It is vital that Brussels and EU member-states follow the consistent policy in word and deed that abusive counter-terrorism policies have no place in Europe.