Posted: Nov. 22, 2005


Judge Richard S. Gebelein thinks in kilometers now, a measure of distance more international than American, equal to roughly six-tenths of a mile.

That is what nearly three months in Bosnia will do to someone, especially coming after about nine months in Afghanistan, where Gebelein was stationed from August 2004 until April on a call-up as a colonel in the Judge Advocate General's Corps with the Delaware Army National Guard.

Factor in a constant exposure to Islam in both places, and it is easy to understand how anyone could become a little less Westernized and a little more Easternized.

Gebelein has been affected in other ways, too. He took an apartment in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, without realizing it was near the cannon that was fired to mark the end of the fast during Ramadan, a month of daylong fasting observed by Muslims in the fall.

The first time Gebelein heard it, he had flashbacks to Afghanistan.

Gebelein has been in the country since the end of August, after he took an early retirement from the Superior Court to accept a prestigious international appointment for a judgeship hearing cases on war crimes and organized crime. The assignment grew out of the work he did in Afghanistan.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, located in Southeastern Europe, emerged from the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and was plunged into a brutal and bloody ethnic strife, eventually leading to NATO military intervention and the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995.

An international presence remained to keep the peace and investigate the war crimes, and Gebelein is a part of it, working in the capital city that was the site of the 1984 Olympic Winter Games. His son Zachary is with him now, and his wife and daughter are scheduled to visit in January.

As he did in Afghanistan, Gebelein is sending e-mail home to Delaware Grapevine to share his experiences. From his e-address at here is his first correspondence:

"I will tell what I can about the position that I am filling at the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Of course, as a judge I cannot talk about the specific cases that I am handling and would be the most interesting subject, but I can speak a little bit about the court in general and living conditions in Sarajevo.

"I have an apartment on the third floor of a house located in Kovaci, a neighborhood in Stari Grad (Old City.) The house is about 800 meters [about a half-mile] up a fairly steep hill with a 20 percent grade overlooking Barcarsija, the old market area of the city.

"Stari Grad is the area of the city that was founded in the 15th Century, and it has a decidedly Eastern atmosphere. When I rented my apartment, I did not realize that it was very close to the cannon that is fired to indicate the fast may be broken during Ramadan. The first time it went off this fall, I had flashbacks to Afghanistan as my room shook.

"Within a kilometer of my apartment there are about 30 mosques. When the call to prayer sounds, the mix of voices is quite impressive. It really does make you stop and think of what you are doing and what is important in life. It also highlights the tensions that still exist in the country, more than 10 years after the shooting war ended.

"To go to work, I take a 20-minute tram ride from the bottom of the hill to Otoka, another neighborhood of Sarajevo. A kilometer walk from the tram station brings you to the State Court building, located in the renovated Viktor Bubanj complex, a former Yugoslav army barracks that is now a criminal justice center. On many days I am able to catch a ride to work with my Belgian colleague, who lives farther outside of Sarajevo.

"The State Court is the national court of BiH [the native abbreviation of Bosnia and Herzegovina], which includes the entities of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska and also the Brcko District, an area in Northern Bosnia, the status of which is still to be resolved.

"The State Court has two Special Chambers to hear war crimes and to hear organized crime and public corruption cases. Each chamber has national and international judges. I am assigned to both chambers and have cases pending in both. There is no jury system here, although they have adopted an adversary system. The court sits in panels of three judges to hear cases, and a majority decides the case.

"In the War Crimes Special Chamber, a national judge is the president of each panel. In the other Special Chamber, there is usually an international judge as president, so I have had the opportunity to serve as president judge and as a member of different panels. Because the State Court is the highest criminal court, panels of our court sit on appeals from other panels that have heard trials, and I have had this opportunity, as well.

Currently the court is hearing a large number of cases involving war crimes allegedly committed during the war. There are probably about 200 of these cases deemed serious enough to be tried in State Court, with many times that number being tried in the courts of the BiH entities.

In addition, the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague has begun to transfer cases back to the State Court to be tried. For a local case to be tried in State Court, it must involve more than simply murder or abuse, and in most cases it will involve persons with command or supervisory control over the activities charged. These cases are extremely emotional cases and involve many witnesses. As a result they frequently take a long time to try.

"The organized crime and corruption cases are also complex and take time to try. Among the cases brought are those involving drugs, human trafficking, bribery, money laundering and other organized activities.

"The international judges come from a number of European countries, including Belgium, Holland, Italy, Germany, Finland, Norway, Portugal, Spain and England, as well as the United States.

"The national judges include representation of all three ethnic groups, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. They are a dedicated group of people who believe that this court must survive and perform well if the Rule of Law is to remain viable in BiH. They are also risking a lot in their respective communities to make the court succeed.

"That is a bit of basic information on what is happening in Sarajevo. I will keep you updated as time goes on."