Milutinovic Acquittal Gets Mixed Reaction
The acquittal of ex-president of Serbia Milan Milutinovic and the conviction of his co-accused at the tribunal this week drew praise from some lawyers and condemnation from many Serbs.
Milutinovic was the most senior of six high-level Serb officials to go on trial for war crimes committed against the Kosovo Albanian population during the 1998-99 war in the province. His co-defendants were all convicted on some or all counts at the end of the two-year trial.
“While the tribunal is viewed with a great deal of suspicion in parts of the former Yugoslavia and particularly Serbia, what [the judgement] shows is it is a fair, impartial and independent institution that does justice according to the evidence,” Karim Khan, a defence lawyer at the court told IWPR.
“For the most senior ranking individual in that indictment to be acquitted is a testament to the independence and impartiality of this bench.”
On account of the large number of Serbs indicted by the court, many in Serbia see the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, as a political institution with an anti-Serb bias.
Delivering the trial verdict this week, Judge Iain Bonomy confirmed scores of atrocities carried out by military and police in Kosovo.
However, he ruled that Milutinovic did not control the Yugoslav army, VJ, or Serbian police, MUP, after the war started on March 24, 1999. While the former president had power over the police, the evidence did not show that he was involved in its actions in Kosovo, they ruled.
But many Serbs condemned the court after it convicted the five other former political, military and police officials, sentencing three of them each to 22 years in prison.
The former deputy prime minister for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, FRY, Nikola Sainovic, the former Yugoslav army general Nebojsa Pavkovic, and ex-police commander Sreten Lukic were found guilty of the murder, persecution, forced transfer and deportation of Kosovo Albanians between January 1 and June 20, 1999.
Meanwhile, the ex-chief of staff of the Yugoslav army Dragoljub Ojdanic and former military commander Vladimir Lazarevic were each sentenced to 15 years in prison after being found guilty of aiding and abetting the commission of deportations and forcible transfer, but cleared of murder and persecutions.
The verdict confirmed Sainovic to have been the most senior Yugoslav official in Kosovo during 1999, after he was sent there by Yugoslavia’s then-president Slobodan Milosevic in the summer of 1998.
“[Sainovic] was aware that criminal acts had been committed by VJ and MUP forces in Kosovo both in 1998 and 1999,” ruled judges. “Sainovic failed to use his extensive authority in Kosovo, and his own initiative, to ensure the cessation of such criminal conduct.”
Judges ruled that Lukic “was endowed with significant authority” over the police in Kosovo and acted as a vital link between crimes enacted in Kosovo and plans created in Belgrade.
Judge Bonomy also confirmed criminal incidents in early 1999, including mass shootings, the torching of villages and sexual assaults, across Kosovo.
“The trial chamber therefore finds that there was a broad campaign of violence directed against the Kosovo Albanian civilian population during the course of the NATO airstrikes, conducted by forces under the control of the FRY and Serbian authorities,” said Judge Bonomy.
“It was the deliberate actions of these forces during this campaign that caused the departure of at least 700,000 Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo in the short period of time between the end of March and beginning of June 1999.”
The judge’s ruling outraged many in Serbia, who labeled the sentences harsh, and questioned the impartiality of the court.
“I think that those who believed the Hague tribunal to be a legal institution tasked with bringing justice will conclude after this judgement that there is no justice at this court. It's all about the politics aimed against Serbia,” said Aleksandra Jankovic, a member of parliament for the opposition party New Serbia.
In Serbia, there’s a view that the Serb officials merely acted to preserve the sovereignty of the country and prevent Kosovo’s accession. When the province became independent in February 2008, there were protests at western support for this, and demonstrators in Kosovo set fire to the European Union flag.
The president of the executive board of the Socialist Party of Serbia, Branko Ruzic, took a similar view to that of Jankovic.
“It's not logical that people who did everything in their power to protect the integrity and sovereignty of our country receive such draconian sentences. They only carried out their duties in accordance with the Constitution. Despite the fact that the Hague tribunal is our reality and that we have to cooperate with it, it is not an institution dedicated to fairness and justice,” he said.
But not everyone in Serbia agreed. The trial judgement was praised by Milan Antonijevic of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in Belgrade.
He said the decision showed that, contrary to widespread opinion in Serbia, Serb defendants are judged impartially at the tribunal.
“From a legal point of view, the whole verdict shows there is an impartial trial, [and] there is a possibility for that at the Hague tribunal,” he said.
“And that if there is no evidence even against Serbs, who are seen in the Serbian media as the only ones being tried at the Hague tribunal, then you really can be released.”
Nevertheless, he warned that the tribunal’s negative image in Serbia would persist regardless of the verdict.
This was the first verdict handed down by the Hague court for war crimes committed by Serbian forces during the war in Kosovo. Although the court had previously heard a case against Milosevic for his alleged responsibility for war crimes in the province, he died in custody before a verdict could be reached.
In what was a marathon case, the trial of Milutinovic and his co-accused heard evidence from 113 prosecution witnesses and 118 witnesses for the defence, after all six men had pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Delivering their verdict, judges dismissed defence arguments that Kosovo Albanians had fled in fear of the NATO bombing campaign, conducted between March and June 1999 to force a Serbian withdrawal, or on the instructions of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.
“The Kosovo Albanian witnesses… gave a broadly consistent account of the fear that reigned in towns and villages across Kosovo, not because of the NATO bombing, but rather because of the actions of the VJ and MUP,” said Judge Bonomy.
“Forces of the FRY and Serbia deliberately expelled Kosovo Albanians from their homes, either by ordering them to leave, or by creating an atmosphere of terror in order to effect their departure.”
Although the judgement raises questions about why Milutinovic was charged, when there was a lack of evidence to prove the case against him, lawyers said his senior position meant there was a case to answer and his acquittal was just part of the process of international justice.
“This was a case properly tried and the judges came to the conclusion that Milutinovic was not in effective control, because those levers of power were in the hands of the president of the FRY, Milosevic,” Steven Kay, a British barrister currently serving as a defence counsel at the court, told IWPR.
“You can’t expect the OTP (Office of the Prosecutor) to get it right every time as there is simply no possibility of perfection. If there was, we would not need trials,” he said.
A total of nine Serbian and Yugoslav officials have been indicted by the tribunal for crimes in Kosovo. The trial of former police commander, Vlastimir Djordjevic, got under way at the tribunal on January 27. He is also accused of participating in the plan to remove hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo.
The senior police official, Vlajko Stojiljkovic, was also charged by the court, but committed suicide in Belgrade in 2002.
Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Nebojsa Grabez in Belgrade contributed to this report.