By Simon MannSydney Morning Herald
October 31, 2001
A body parts controversy is embroiling the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, with international forensic scientists outraged by what they say are unethical practices involving samples taken from Balkans graves.
The issue involves bone and tooth samples taken from thousands of victims of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. So far, the tribunal has kept the controversy under wraps for fear that it could compromise its efforts in bringing war criminals to justice.
The revelations come as the tribunal's most high-profile suspect, the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, returned to court on charges of crimes against humanity, including mass murder in Kosovo and Croatia.
Graham Blewitt, the tribunal's Australian deputy prosecutor, called the body parts controversy a professional "bunfight".
It centres on the tribunal's retention of bone and tooth samples used for identifying the age of victims. The samples were collected during exhumations in the Balkans over the past several years as part of a research project being conducted by a senior tribunal forensic anthropologist.
However, experts from Europe and the United States who have worked for the tribunal on secondment say the samples did not need to be kept in The Hague and fear that many will be unable to be returned to their correct graves. They say some samples were taken from bodies that had been presumptively identified, without the consent of relatives, and that keeping the samples contravenes the Muslim customs of many victims.
One scientist, who asked not to be identified, said: "I try to be supportive of the tribunal whenever possible ... but they really do have a major problem on their hands."
Some staff working for the International Commission for Missing Persons in Bosnia only became aware that the tribunal was removing the samples when they tried to narrow down the tribunal's estimates of the age of individual victims pulled from mass graves around Prijedor.
"Some of the age ranges were ridiculous: from 17 years to 70 years, for example," said a commission worker involved in identifications. "When we decided we would have to make a more accurate assessment, we discovered that the bones used by forensic anthropologists for this very purpose weren't in the body bag."
Post mortem reports indicated the tribunal had removed routine samples for DNA testing as well as "other samples" during work at its morgues in Visoko, Bosnia, and in Urosevac, southern Kosovo.
These additional samples taken from each body were a rib, incisor teeth and parts of the clavicle and pubic bone - components that provide investigators with critical clues about a person's age and sex.
The scientists say that by removing these parts the tribunal has undermined the work of the Balkan organisations whose primary role is to identify victims. In Kosovo neither of the two groups involved in identifications - the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN mission's Victim Recovery Identification Commission - were notified in advance about the research project.
Some scientists also argue that the research into identification techniques by the tribunal forensic expert, José Pablo Baraybar, which was approved by the tribunal's senior management, was invalid because results could not be verified by cross-checking with victims' identities.
Mr Baraybar could not be contacted for comment. But a tribunal source said on his behalf that the aim of the research was to develop a new system for identifying age ranges of bodies.
"José's work, as far as I can see, is good work, and it's not harming anyone," the source said. "It's taking little tiny pieces of bone that no-one would ever miss ... For each one of these people complaining, he's probably had five anthropologists over the last two or three years who are in full support of him."
Mr Blewitt said: "We believe we are conducting a legitimate forensic exercise, part of which was aimed at identifying the victims of crimes that we're investigating. That's the purpose of it."
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