TUZLA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Alma Sehovic left behind a 19-year-old daughter when she threw herself from the window of her apartment in the Bosnian city of Tuzla in November last year. She left behind, too, a debilitating battle to expose alleged corrupt practices at the state employment office where she worked.
Sehovic, a 49-year-old auditor in this rundown former industrial city, left no suicide note and Reuters cannot confirm what drove her to take her life.
What is known is that she had spoken out about her suspicions that a sale of employment office real estate was being rigged. Sehovic said that as a result she was ostracized, transferred to a small, out-of-town office and effectively demoted. Her employer, the state employment office, has denied any wrongdoing.
Whether or not Sehovic’s suspicions were valid, friends, relatives, anti-corruption organizations and some government officials say the case shines a light on the way whistleblowers are often treated in a country that is ranked 80 out of 175 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Friends and relatives say Sehovic had become demoralized by the backlash against her as a whistleblower. She was far from alone, say corruption watchdogs.
Two decades since the end of its 1992-95 war, graft has become endemic in Bosnia, joining forces with unemployment and poverty to fuel frustrations that erupted in unprecedented civil unrest in 2014.
The city’s state prosecutor has opened an investigation into allegations of misuse of funds at the Tuzla employment office and other illegal activities based on a number of anonymous complaints and those made by Sehovic.
The office’s director, Senad Muhamedbegovic, told Reuters: “I am ready to present all documents to show there were no criminal activities.”
In death, Sehovic has become a symbol for many in Bosnia of the thankless fight to root out corruption, a priority for Western powers that have poured billions into Bosnia to cement stability and foster good governance.
Before her suicide, Sehovic had dropped a lawsuit she had begun against her employer and moved to another office closer to home.
“She was devastated after learning that the lawsuit against the office may take years, and with being pressured to drop the charges in exchange for a transfer to a better job,” her cousin Asmir told Reuters. He did not specify who was putting pressure on Sehovic.
Bosnian Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic last month admitted the scale of the challenge, telling an anti-corruption conference in Sarajevo: “Corruption is one of the most pressing problems facing Bosnian society.”
He said the government had increased funds for police and security agencies and created new institutions to oversee the fight.
Whistleblowers, meanwhile, complain of retaliation that has created a climate in which many Bosnians invariably stay silent in the face of everyday graft.
“The position of whistleblowers in Bosnia is extremely difficult and complicated, and through our work with these people we have found they are exposed to systematic jeopardy and bullying,” Srdjan Blagovcanin, the executive director of the Bosnian arm of Transparency International, told Reuters.
“Sometimes their physical integrity is even endangered, let alone their jobs if they report the case of corruption.”
Tuzla was the epicenter of nationwide protests that turned violent in February 2014 against the joblessness, poverty, graft and political inertia that pervades Bosnia. State buildings were torched in several cities, including the capital Sarajevo.
Critics say Bosnia’s decentralized political system of power-sharing along ethnic lines - which helped silence the guns in 1995 - has stifled progress and encouraged networks of political patronage and nepotism in which graft has flourished.
After years of stagnation, Bosnia is expected to apply within weeks to join the European Union, spurred by a British and German initiative to release funds to encourage economic reform, worried that the potent mix of graft, poverty and joblessness may again trigger dangerous unrest in a country where sectarian tensions are never far below the surface.
The United States embassy in Sarajevo estimates that corruption costs the country 700 million euros annually, or eight percent of Bosnia’s meager national output. The embassy has allocated over $12 million in anti-graft projects in Bosnia, but even then, the country’s legal framework often seems to work against them, watchdogs say.
According to ‘Account’, a network of non-governmental organizations involved in fighting corruption, 75 percent of all public contracts in 2015 were awarded through negotiation rather than via public tender, meaning they avoided public scrutiny.
Account director Eldin Karic said 60 percent of public institutions in Bosnia are not legally obliged to advertise jobs publicly, depriving would-be applicants of fair and transparent competition and enabling nepotism and political patronage.
“We have laws that were designed to allow for corruption, and then we have a judiciary that does not do its job,” said Karic.
A report by the Sarajevo-based Analitika Centre for Social Research found that 80 percent of businesses in Bosnia considered political links the only way to survive in the Bosnian market, while over 55 percent felt political patronage was acceptable.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an arm of the State Department, last year launched a five-year program to help the Bosnian judiciary fight corruption and better prosecute cases.
The embassy last month rewarded Sehovic posthumously for her “outstanding courage”. Ambassador Maureen Cormack said corruption in Bosnia had spread like a “cancer that is choking growth and progress.”
“We ... must be willing to support and protect those courageous individuals who stand up as whistleblowers.”
Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Janet McBride