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What to do during a war? In Sarajevo there's litigation -- and the occasional ax murder


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- After nearly two years of unrelenting slaughter, siege and wartime nastiness here, who'd think there would still be enough time and energy for plain old murder? Or enough cool calculation to keep filing lawsuits?

Yet spurned lovers still shoot each other dead in Sarajevo doorways. Drinkers who argue politics still come to fatal blows. Angry spouses still go for the jugular, or worse. Lawyers not only keep filing suits -- one has won a multimillion-dollar judgment.

And somehow, despite the hardships of daily shelling and shooting, Sarajevo's creaky justice system keeps lurching along, arbitrating matters of life and death in a drafty courthouse that has lost most of its windows and nearly half its judges.

There's even a pending case of an ax-wielding wife, with remarkable similarities to the Lorena Bobbitt trial (although not in the way that first comes to mind; this woman aimed for the head).

"After the war it would probably make a good psychological study as to why there were still so many murders," attorney Zarko Bulic says. "It is probably because people are very edgy now, and they don't have any of the values they used to have. There are also more guns around. It's very hard staying alive, and it causes a lot of these emotional reactions."

No one knows for sure if Sarajevo's murder rate has gone up or down during the war. As one court clerk explained, "It is hard to collect that kind of information now."

And in an environment where explosions and sniper fire are commonplace, it can be tricky defining where combat ends and homicide begins. Some investigators wonder if clever murderers might be exploiting this murkiness. If someone is found shot in the head down in the dangerous zone by the Miljacka River, for instance, who's to say he wasn't hit by a sniper?

The wily, silver-haired Mr. Bulic only knows that he's never short of clients these days. In Sarajevo's community of "advokats," the local word for lawyers, he may be the best in the business.

Not only do his clients include Ramiz "Celo" Delalic, a reputed mobster awaiting trial on charges of organized crime, but he also won a recent $2.2 million judgment for a local pharmaceuticals firm. He is president of Bosnia's equivalent of a national bar association.

Then again, Mr. Bulic doesn't have much competition. Only about 50 practicing lawyers remain among Sarajevo's population 300,000, a ratio that in an American city might be cause for celebration.

Even before the war there were only 150. Under communism, there was little demand for lawyers in the former Yugoslavia. Evacuation, army enlistment and death have since cut the prewar total by two-thirds.

The volume of white-collar cases and civil suits has dropped correspondingly since the fighting began, judges say, and Sarajevo's District Court -- the mainstay for major cases -- is down to 33 judges from its prewar total of 64.

Even so, says Muamer Herceglija, president of the District Court, "we still have sessions here in the court almost every day. But we have to be very careful, because the shells are always falling, sometimes right around the building."

Mr. Herceglija, 52, has the sort of roomy, well-appointed office one would expect of someone presiding over 33 judges, as long as one is willing to overlook the blown-out windows and lack of heat and electricity. Standing on his large desk is a bronze statuette of a woman holding aloft the balanced scales of justice.

This rendering of Lady Justice wears a Yugoslav star on her forehead, and she has no blindfold. She is a holdover from the Communist days, just like the structure of Bosnia's court system.

The District Courts are wedged between the Supreme Court and the Community Courts, which handle small cases such as traffic violations (although no one gets speeding tickets anymore. With the snipers and shell holes, speed and recklessness are virtues).

During the first year of the war, as control of the city swayed toward the armed anarchy of private warlords and black-marketeers, military authorities slapped together their own court system, handling such cases as draft-dodging and the highly profitable smuggling of food, coffee, alcohol and sugar.

Talk of this kind of business leads naturally to Mr. Bulic's most

famous client, the notorious "Celo," or "Mr. Celo," as he calls him. He has been in jail since Oct. 26, the day police cordoned off the city in a crackdown that included mortar battles and the taking of hostages. "Celo," released his hostages and gave up.

Mr. Bulic gets a little defensive -- which is his job, after all -- when quizzed about "Celo's" alleged misdeeds. "I think that Mr. Celo ,, did not commit murders," he says forcefully. His voice then trails off as he adds, "He just did some other things."

What sort of other things?

"It is a very tangled case."

Will someone in "Celo's" line of work have any trouble paying his legal bills?

A wry grins spreads slowly on Mr. Bulic's face. "We will find that out when the case is over," he says.

Not that Mr. Bulic necessarily needs the money. In a city where the local currency is virtually worthless and most luxuries are either unaffordable or nonexistent, he manages an air of mild prosperity.

"For now, I am quite all right," he says.

It helps to win cases such as the lawsuit he filed on behalf of the Bosnalijek pharmaceutical company. With the war raging and the Serbs surrounding the city, the company decided in April to try to fill a previous order from Russia for $2.2 million worth of medicine. The DAS trucking company agreed to carry the load.

The truck reached the Bosnian Serb checkpoint. The Serbs seized the medicine. The pharmaceutical maker sued the trucking company for $2.2 million and won.

The case is on appeal, but Mr. Bulic sees no way he can lose. "They [at DAS] agreed to take full responsibility," he says.

In the United States Mr. Bulic might figure to get a third of the award for his fee. Not here. The likely fee is only $5,000 to $6,000, he says, and will probably be paid in local currency. That could explain why Sarajevo has only 50 lawyers.

Mr. Bulic usually is paid in hard currencies, but none of his money has yet helped him escape the city's daily hazards. His apartment faces Sniper Alley, and he says, "I have 36 bullets in my walls that have come through the windows."

Crimes of passion

Although most of Sarajevo's celebrity defendants, such as "Celo." have ended up in military court, the civilian docket is still loaded with the kinds of crimes of passion one might not expect to see during a war.

One recent case involved a young man and an old man in a political argument at a cafe. "The older man attacked. The younger man shot him," said the District Court president, Mr. Herceglija. A panel of two judges and three citizen jurors, which customarily presides over murder trials, decided to let the young man go, ruling that he acted in self-defense.

Then there's the case of the man and woman, both married but not to each other. They were lovers, but the man called it quits. She shot him dead in a doorway.

"Three days ago she was sentenced to nine years in prison," Mr. Herceglija says.

Perhaps the most intriguing case is one yet to be decided, in the courtroom of Judge Davt Bibic. The defendant is Amire Agic, 21, who, in this town where ethnicity is not supposed to matter, is described in court papers as "a young Gypsy woman."

Early one morning in August after arguing with her husband, Mrs. Agic took an ax from her kitchen, walked into the bedroom where he was stretched out on his back and whacked him in the head. She then hit him eight more times, including two more blows to the head.

She put away the ax, walked to a friend's house and turned herself over to the police. She told them that she had suddenly snapped after months of physical and mental abuse by her husband. Her lawyer argues that the long pattern of her husband's abuse drove her to the crime. She claims to remember nothing about the moments after she struck the first blow.

In the United States, a case with those elements would almost surely become the subject of true-crime paperbacks and docudrama television. At the very least it would stir the passions and support of a few interest groups.

In Sarajevo it has fallen deep within the widening cracks of routine personal misery, and it seems neither more nor less tragic than the events of almost any day of the war.

There will be no plea of insanity. "Three doctors who are psychiatrists examined her," Judge Bibic says, "and we are quite sure that she is mentally healthy."

He says the case is nearly complete. As he waits for the last witness to arrive, he asks, "Would you like to speak to her?"

A few moments later a court clerk escorts Mrs. Agic into the room. She is petite, of medium height. Even in wartime, attorneys apparently advise their clients on the importance of appearance. She wears a smartly cut leather jacket and a modest blouse. Her hair appears recently styled, and her lipstick lends a certain primness to her heart-shaped mouth.

As she speaks of her case, detailing the months of arguments and beatings, right up until the final moment when she raised the ax, her large brown eyes fill with tears but never overflow.

She left her husband several times to escape his behavior, she says. But after she gave birth to their first child, a son, he won another chance with his tenderness at the hospital.

That was in April. Four months later he was back to his old ways, she says, and then he ended a nasty fight by slapping the baby. "At that moment something snapped in my head. On the child's cheek I can see the imprint of his hand. I went to the kitchen, and when I turned around I saw the ax."

Weighing the verdict

Judge Bibic sits nearby as the woman completes the account. He still has on his heavy overcoat as he stuffs the pages of a legal newsletter into an iron stove that heats the room.

Small flakes of wispy gray ash float through the small courtroom like oversized motes of dust. By now the second judge in the case has entered, a woman who will help Judge Bibic and three jurors decide the verdict.

Mrs. Agic asks Judge Bibic when she may visit her son. He is now 9 months old and since August has lived in a room at the city orphanage with eight other infants and toddlers.

When he is older he'll move upstairs, to a dim, dusty bedlam of young hustlers and pickpockets that might have been dreamed up by Dickens. The child has the same large brown eyes as his mother.

"Today is not possible," the judge says. It is a Friday. He thinks for a moment and says, "Maybe Monday."

After Mrs. Agic leaves the room, the judges discuss the case. They believe her story of abuse, and it has been supported by most witnesses.

"All the arguments are on her side," Judge Bibic says. "Her husband was a drunk, a gambler. . . . Our system calls for five to 15 years for this kind of murder, and the normal sentence is 12 to 14. But we expect, let's say, a less than normal sentence for this woman."

Once Mrs. Agic is in prison, he says, she'll probably get to visit her son about once a month.

He says he doubts that today's witness, Mrs. Agic's niece, will show up, and it's hard to blame her. The courthouse is a long walk from her home, and it's been a noisy morning. Outside, a machine gun rattles somewhere in the hills. Large, distant explosions have been rumbling through the city for the past hour.

Judge Bibic pauses for a moment, and then it is time for justice to march onward in Sarajevo. He says he will set sentencing for Feb. 23.

* TOMORROW: Sarajevo's gravediggers are constantly busy, but there are things left to live for.

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