Unattainable Justice For Victims Of Sexual Harassment

Female students from Bosnia and Herzegovina are increasingly testifying about the immorality of professors who they accuse of multiple sexual harassments. However, public universities and the BiH judiciary ignore their testimonies and turn blind eye to revealing the truth that would bring the persistent harassers to justice.

It has been nearly two decades since the actress Mirna Jogunčić dropped from the Academy of Drama Arts in Tuzla because of Professor Srđan Vukadinović. The images of his harassment still flash in the corner of her vision today.

“Whenever I met him in the hallways, he always kind of pushed me to the wall while we talked. It was as if he was constantly looking for some reasons for us to spend time alone. I no longer felt safe in his presence”, Jogunčić recalled the year 2004.

She was not alone. Other female students share similar experiences with Vukadinović. For many years, they did not dare to report the professor who is considered an indisputable authority among students. They first decided to speak anonymously on the Facebook group named “Nisam tražila” [I have not asked for it]. Since 2020 this FB group has been flooded with women’s confessions about sexual harassment in BiH and the region. However, for Professor Vukadinović, all these confessions are lies, and the women who have reported him are “professional prostitutes”.

The accusations meant nothing to the Tuzla Academy, which did not even try to investigate his disciplinary responsibility or take measures to prevent sexual harassment and protect students. 

CIN journalists found that public university faculties and academies in BiH are avoiding taking disciplinary actions for sexual harassment, which may lead to the dismissal of teaching staff. They rather leave the testimonies about the indecency of professors to the judiciary, which is not benevolent toward the victims – out of 53 people reported for sexual harassment to the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH in the past decade, only five have been convicted. Therefore, support for victims who are empowered to speak out is insufficient, and justice is hard to attain.

Mirna Jogunčić says that the prosecution and the system must stand by women who have gone through ugly experiences that leave lifelong traumas (Photo: CIN)

The Female Students Spoke Out, but The Authorities Remain Silent

Having heard that one of his students wanted to drop from the Academy, professor Srđan Vukadinović invited her to his office. There was nothing unusual about it: the professor teaches 12 subjects at the Academy and knows each student well, so he wanted to know the reason. Mirna Jogunčić was 22 at the time and she had had enough. For a long time, she put up with the professor’s “inadvertent” brushing in the aisle and was determined to put an end to it. The only way was for her to leave.

He locked the door of the dean’s office,” Mirna recalls through a wall of restrained tears, “I felt great discomfort and my body was simply paralyzed with some fear. He got up from the armchair and walked toward me. As he was approaching me I was all confused and retreated backward step by step until he literally nailed me to the door physically coming at me. He started kissing my neck. I wish I didn’t remember those sighs… I pushed him away. I could barely unlock that door.“

The vivid images from 2004 upset her, but she told her story retaining her composure and calm. She decided to speak up and end the mental struggle brought to her by years of silence after leaving the Academy. She says she was afraid that no one would believe her: “He was someone above me. I was an ordinary student.“

Anonymous confessions in the group “I have not asked for it” united former female students of the Tuzla Academy of Drama Arts who had similar experiences. Jogunčić and four other women are now seeking justice in institutions. In January 2021, they reported Professor Vukadinović to the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH for multiple sexual harassment. Although these cases require urgent action, they have waited for more than a year to hear that their testimonies will trigger proceedings against Vukadinović.

Vice-dean for teaching at the Tuzla Academy, Damir Mahmutović, says that he read the testimonies of female students on the Internet.

“As a member of the Academy, I felt as if I myself were accused. It was not at all easy for me to read it. Perhaps, it would have been even more difficult for me if I had known the names of these girls. I may have been on stage with them. We cannot act on anonymous reports.”

The students did not report Vukadinović to the Academy, and according to Vice Dean Mahmutović this is why it was not possible to check the merits of the accusations. However, under the Code of Ethics, any complaints about the behavior of professors can be investigated even without filing a formal report as soon as it is learned of the misconduct of members of the academic community.

For Jogunčić, the Academy washing their collective hands in public is rather defeating because, as she says, they “knew what was going on”, as confirmed in the statements of other former students. One of them told prosecutors about her traumatic experience with Vukadinović.

“He praised my beauty and dedication to work. As he talked, he was getting closer and closer to me. He was stroking my hair, and then he put his hands around my neck, lifting my chin to kiss me. All the courage to scold him has evaporated. I felt as if my blood were draining out of me, my hands were ice cold and wet.”

Already the first journalist’s question about the accusations caused a fierce reaction from professor Vukadinović. Denying the allegations, the 66-year-old professor claims not to have been surprised by them, and argues that the claims were made by “professional prostitutes who are after some sort of puffery”. He ironically concluded that they [accusations] had a “relaxing” effect on him.

Losing cool in the middle of the interview, Vukadinović also picked on the CIN [female] journalist: “Those are female students who flunked out the year, who couldn’t [make it], and maybe it is you. I see, obviously you too intended to be on the list of those whom I harassed? Well, you could be on that list.”

Despite the warning of inappropriate statements, Vukadinović continued: “Harassment does not work for me. I do not harass. It has to go all the way, so come what may. I can only be accused of rape.”

Professor Srđan Vukadinović in his defense argues that no female student has any evidence of him sexually harassing them (Photo: srdjanvukadinovic.com)

When asked about his relationship with Professor Vukadinović, Vice Dean Mahmutović said that Vukadinović is “very professional and official”. 

Ten former and current students at the Tuzla Academy shared their experiences with CIN reporters, claiming that some of them left the Academy because of the inconvenience they experienced in their relationship with professor Vukadinović.

They Waited Their Turn In Their Panties

Former students of the Tuzla Academy were joined by colleagues from the Academy of Performing Arts in Sarajevo. In 2020, eight of them reported Mersad Čuljević, a professor of fitness training, to the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH and the Ethics Committee of the Academy.

Srđan Vukadinović teaches 12 subjects at the Tuzla Academy of Drama Arts, and for years he was also employed at the University of Montenegro. The Tuzla Canton Prosecutor’s Office, therefore, accused him of abusing his office and proposed to the Tuzla Municipal Court to ban him from teaching at all faculties in BiH for five years. The case has been in court for three years, and Vukadinović should retire in less than a year.

Srđan Vukadinović teaches 12 subjects at the Tuzla Academy of Drama Arts, and for years he was also employed at the University of Montenegro. The Tuzla Canton Prosecutor’s Office, therefore, accused him of abusing his office and proposed to the Tuzla Municipal Court to ban him from teaching at all faculties in BiH for five years. The case has been in court for three years, and Vukadinović should retire in less than a year.

“I had to take the entrance exam with professor Čuljević in my panties.  I will never forget that shame. He touched me first with a stick and then with his hand on my neck, shoulders, and back. I closed my eyes, just waiting for [the exam] to be over.  During that time, my colleagues sat squatting next to each other in their panties and waited their turn,” a former student of the Sarajevo Academy told prosecutors.

Amila Terzimehić, a former student and current assistant to Professor Čuljević, confirmed that in previous years, candidates at the entrance exam were asked to take off their upper clothing in order to determine their posture. It is the analysis of body posture by Napoleon Wolanski’s criteria.

Professor Čuljević says that undressing at the entrance exam is an inherited practice, while the former head of the acting department Admir Glamočak claims that Čuljević brought this way of analysis from the Faculty of Sports where he previously taught. There [Faculty of Sports], however, the students have never been asked to take off their bras nor was there a need for it.

“We even have girls who wear veils applying to our college. They can be in shorts. If they wear leggings, they don’t have to take them off,” explains Damira Vranešić-Hadžimehmedović, a professor at the Faculty of Sports.

Just like the Academy in Tuzla, the Academy in Sarajevo did not publicly condemn Professor Čuljević, nor did it take any disciplinary actions against him. Former dean of the Academy, Srđan Vuletić, says that the Ethics Committee of the Academy forwarded all the reports it received against Čuljević to the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH because the Prosecutor’s Office is responsible for investigating and proving the veracity of accusations.

“The report itself has no legal effect. It has to be proven. (…) I’m not defending anyone. Had there been a legal basis, he would have been sanctioned,” Vuletić.

When the students decided to share their experiences on social networks, the Sarajevo Academy formed the Commission for the Prevention of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and adopted Guidelines for the Prevention of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. Vuletić says that in this way they wanted to encourage students to report violence. Eight students responded to this call, but the Academy, again, ultimately left the sanctioning of those responsible to the judiciary.

However, according to the Statute of the University of Sarajevo, disciplinary actions can be taken for gross misconduct, such as violating the Code of Ethics by harassing students. In a comment on this possibility, Vuletić said that “reporting does not mean that act had been committed”, but he believes the allegations about undressing during the entrance exam.

Professor Mersad Čuljević claims that the reports on him have been fabricated (Photo: FENA)

In an interview with CIN, Professor Čuljević said: “These are commissioned stories, fictional and full of untruths.”  According to him, the textbook describes that the analysis requires subjects to be barefoot and in panties. However, the textbook he refers to is something that Čuljević himself chose and is not part of the compulsory literature for his course, and it describes the way of analyzing the “male subjects”, not “female subjects”.

While he denied the accusations in the proceedings before the Ethics Committee of the Academy, the Committee nevertheless expressed “regret over all the inconveniences experienced by generations of acting students.”

The Ethics Council of the University of Sarajevo did not react to the reports filed against Čuljević either. The Council president Enita Nakaš said that in absence of evidence they had no basis for imposing any sanctions. 

“In my view, the very fact that someone has been reported to the Ethics Council is shocking enough. However, these poorly defined legal terms shrink the space for further action”, said Nakaš.

Namely, the multiple reports and testimonies of several students about the same misconduct of a teacher are not a sufficient reason for sanctions or disciplinary actions, although the Council is obliged to check the compliance with the Code of Conduct.

Speaking about the practice of higher education institutions, professor Srđan Vuletić says that ethics committees are completely meaningless in terms of reviewing sexual harassment reports because they abdicate their responsibility to conduct the evidentiary procedure.

“If they render an opinion that someone “did it”, the entire process of proving the case before the court falls on them because they wrote that something had happened,” Vuletić said.

Victims Do Not Give Up

Ervina Piralić from Bihać has been fighting for six years.

In 2015, as a sophomore student at the Law School in Bihać, she came to the office of professor Genc Trnavci to have her grade entered into the student grade book. She remembers the professor refusing to enter into her grade book the passing grade, claiming that she can do better than that, and suggesting that they move to a nearby restaurant to discuss a “serious topic”.

“I agreed to it, as I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I saw no vicious intentions at the time. However, from that moment on, everything went in the wrong direction.”

Instead of going to a restaurant, Trnavci drove her to a nearby forest.

“He offered me material benefits in exchange for having sex with him, i.e., to have a kind of intimate relationship with him. He was touching my knees. He seized my phone saying “I’m taking your phone so you wouldn’t record me”. He moved to the back seat of the vehicle. He approached me, hugged me, and asked me to kiss him, to hug him … I tried to leave the vehicle. These were the horrible moments when you no longer know what to do. Should I hit him, should I … scream … You are afraid for your own life. You are concerned about your own safety, and on the other hand, I knew that I had to go to college the next day. I still have exams that I need to take with that professor. These were the moments when you no longer know how to act, and I had no witnesses who would testify in my favor.”

As she talks, Ervina is focused on curbing the inner turmoil. She makes an effort not to allow disgust and indignation to overwhelm her memories because she is determined to speak up for other female students and women who have not yet shared their traumatic experiences.

Since 2016, Ervina Piralić has been struggling to prove that she was a victim of sexual harassment (Photo: CIN)

In 2016, Piralić reported professor Trnavci to the Una-Sana Canton Prosecutor’s Office and the Law School in Bihać for sexual harassment. The prosecution closed the investigation, concluding that there was not enough evidence for the indictment.

The Law School did not do anything either.

“As legalists, we must carry out appropriate procedures. So, if the procedure has not been conducted or if the competent Prosecutor’s Office decided not to prosecute, for us it is a relevant view. It means that tomorrow if such a professor is fired, he could certainly collect damages for being illegally dismissed”, says Dean Suad Hamzabegović, emphasizing that today “there are no problems or contact with the professor”.

He did not want to say whether he believed the accusations against Trnavci.

Meanwhile, Ervina has learned that Trnavci has been reported for sexual harassment before. He was fired by the former management of the Law School in 2005 due to the report of student Amra Džafić, but the court reinstated him due to a lack of evidence.

“He came very close to me. I cannot remember exactly whether he reached with one or both hands towards my head, intending to pull my head and kiss me on the mouth. He tried to do that, but I wrenched free before he kissed me. I literally wrenched free of his arms and got up from my chair. Then the suspect told me ‘don’t you want this?’, and I replied ‘of course not,” Džafić testified to the prosecutors.

Upon his reinstatement, Trnavci was reported again for sexual harassment in 2008.

In the case of Ervina Piralić, the Ethics Committee of the University of Bihać referred to the order of the Prosecutor’s Office to suspend the investigation and took the position that “it cannot be concluded beyond any reasonable doubt that Trnavci violated the Code of Ethics.”

While most criminal reports of sexual harassment are based on the testimonies of victims, Piralić also provided the Una-Sana Canton Prosecutor’s Office with an audio recording of a conversation with Trnavci about the disputed event. Prosecutor Indira Ćuk did not accept it as evidence, claiming that it was not authentic because Piralić handed it over on a CD instead of on her mobile phone.

Ćuk told CIN that she conducted a detailed investigation, and when asked why she rejected the audio recording and did not take into account the fact that Trnavci had already been reported for the same act, she answered that she no longer remembers the case.

Professor Genc Trnavci was reported three times for sexual harassment (Photo: RTV USK)

Piralić did not give up. She reported Trnavci for sexual harassment to the BiH Prosecutor’s Office in 2021, but her case was once again rejected.

“Maybe I failed to bring him to justice, and I did not bring him to a trial, but I am glad that I spoke about all this publicly and that the public knows of him in this light. Such persons should be denounced by full name. This story should not be perceived as local gossip. It’s not local gossip, it is a crime.”

Genc Trnavci met with CIN reporters but refused to speak officially.

“There Is Little Evidence”

In the past decade, only the University of Banja Luka has punished one of its employees for sexually harassing students and violating the Code of Ethics. An employee in the student service of the Faculty of Technology was sanctioned with a 20 percent cut of his salary for three months and has been transferred to another job.

Dalibor Kesić, an advisor for the prevention of gender-based violence and sexual harassment at the university, says that universities have mechanisms to sanction such behavior even when prosecutors give up prosecuting reported persons.

From 2010 to 2020, at least ten educators from Bosnia and Herzegovina were convicted of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual intercourse with students by abusing their position in primary and secondary schools. They were sentenced to suspended sentences and imprisonment for six months to three years. No academic professor has been convicted of sexual harassment in the past decade.

From 2010 to 2020, at least ten educators from Bosnia and Herzegovina were convicted of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual intercourse with students by abusing their position in primary and secondary schools. They were sentenced to suspended sentences and imprisonment for six months to three years. No academic professor has been convicted of sexual harassment in the past decade.

“All mechanisms must be in place, not only to solve cases but also to send a clear message that sexual harassment has no place at the university,” Kesić pointed out.

State Prosecutor Vedrana Mijović says victims often do not realize that they are victims of sexual harassment. Despite the small number of cases – due to the lack of evidence, she claims that the credible testimony of the victim can result in a charge of sexual harassment.

“Every report should and must be checked. On the other hand, having several victims of the same perpetrator makes the job easier for the prosecutor.  Usually, the perpetrator uses the same pattern,” says Mijović, emphasizing that the society must fight to have sexual harassment recognized at the primary school, as it happens already at that age.

“If the victim reported it and if the psychiatric experts said that such a person indeed suffers consequences due to the reported behavior, I see no reason for not granting faith to such a person, i.e., the victim,” concluded Mijović.