Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
ANALYSIS: Dubrava Jail Deaths Dispute
During his trial, Slobodan Milosevic has complained on many occasions that he has not yet found the right Albanian witness with which to discuss two favourite subjects - both the cornerstones of his defence - the activities of Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, and NATO bombardment.
To all his KLA- or NATO-related questions, the great majority of Albanian witnesses have replied either that it "never happened" or that they "knew nothing" about it.
Last week, Milosevic finally faced several "properly qualified" Albanians - former KLA members who spoke without hesitation not only of their military activities but also of NATO's bombardment and its Albanian civilian victims.
But Milosevic still was not satisfied. He objected that "since the end of the summer recess the tribunal had brought in only criminals and terrorists to be heard as witnesses" which constituted "a disgrace for the Western justice".
The judges again failed to react to Milosevic's show of contempt for the court.
But they did intervene to interrupt Ismet Haxhiavdi, a sick old man, after he had described how 20 members of his family (19 of them women and children) were burned in April 1999 in Djakovica and had then asked the accused "if he had any feelings at all?" "We will have to interrupt this," presiding judge, Richard May, said.
Last week, the defendant, for the second or perhaps third time since the trial, began to display some feeling for one of the victims testifying about her suffering.
After Lirij Imeraj had described the killing of six of her children - aged four to 16 - her husband, her mother-in-law and 11 other members of her wider family on March 26, 1999, in the Kosovo village of Padalishte, Milosevic said he was "sorry for the loss of family of this witness" and would confine his questions to what was "absolutely necessary".
The limits to his questions in most cases boiled down to suggestions that the witness may have made a mistake in identifying the perpetrators of what he himself called an "exceptionally savage and cruel crime".
Milosevic suggested the offenders were "KLA members in disguise" taking revenge on the family because Imeraj's husband was an activist in Ibrahim Rugova's non-violent Democratic Alliance of Kosovo, or even "foreign mercenaries, mujahedeen", whose "speciality", Milosevic claimed, was carrying out "most cruel crimes like this one".
But Imeraj stood by her words, repeating that the crime was committed by Serb policemen, paramilitary units and neighbours from the nearby village of Crkoleze, who "knew them personally".
Her testimony was corroborated by Sofia Imeraj, whose father and brother were killed on the same day. She recalled her father pleading with one of the policemen, saying, "For God's sake, we lived together as neighbours." She said the man replied, "We did, but not any more", and then pulled the trigger.
The final phase of evidence presentation for the Kosovo indictment, which according to the judges' schedule must end by September 13, was taken up last week by so-called crime-base witnesses who testified about the mass killing sites described in the indictment.
Some of the 11 witnesses heard last week added new details to previous testimonies about alleged killings in Izbica, Meja and Djakovica. The first testimonies about Padalishte, Stagovo and especially the prison at Dubrava were also heard.
One of the few things both the prosecution and the accused have agreed on is that in May 1999 more than a hundred Kosovo Albanians imprisoned in the Dubrava jail in the Istok municipality were killed. The dispute is over how they died.
The prosecution says Serb security forces killed most of the victims while the accused says the dead were all victims of NATO bombs.
NATO's bombardment of the prison was confirmed by three prosecution witnesses: two former prisoners who survived the bombing and the British journalist Jacky Rowland who was taken there twice by the Serbian authorities to see the "consequences of the bombing".
The testimonies of former prisoners Jusuf Krasniqi and Gani Baqaj were almost identical. Both were arrested for KLA membership and sentenced to 12- and 18-month prison terms respectively. They said NATO bombed Dubrava on May 19 and 21, 1999, killing 23 prisoners and several prison staff.
The second strike on May 21 was especially devastating, destroying much of the prison facilities. Further casualties were prevented when about 1,000 prisoners assembled on the sports field inside the prison complex, making themselves visible from the air, they said.
Krasniqi and Baqaj testified that Yugoslav army tanks and anti-aircraft cannons had been placed round the jail, which in April "provoked" NATO aircraft flying over the prison on missions to hit other targets.
The two witnesses said on May 22 the prisoners were told to line up on the sports field, with the explanation that they were to be transferred to other more secure prisons. About 800 prisoners obeyed while the rest hid themselves in the jail. After the prisoners formed a line, police started firing from the guard tower and the jail walls, using hand grenades, bazookas and automatic weapons.
The witnesses said about 20 officers opened fire. What ensued was total chaos with prisoners falling down all over the place. It all stopped some 20 minutes later, allegedly for the guards to reload. The witnesses then managed to escape from the sports field and take shelter in the remnants of the prison buildings.
Milosevic and Judge Kwon found it strange that all 20 guards who allegedly opened fire had to reload their weapons at the same time. The witnesses were unable to offer any persuasive explanation for this. Overall, they asserted 97 prisoners were killed and more than 150 wounded in the shooting and that some of the wounded died later.
The survivors sheltering in the remnants of the prison were hiding in the cellar of the kitchen and the sewers. The following morning, the witnesses said, new soldiers or paramilitary units came to the jail, opened the drains and threw in hand grenades.
Using grenades and gunfire they forced prisoners out of the kitchen cellar and the other rooms in which they had barricaded themselves. These inmates were taken to the sports hall and evacuated that day to prisons in Serbia. According to the testimonies of Krasniqi and Baqaj, 153 prisoners were killed in Dubrava on May 22 and 23, in addition to the 23 who died during the NATO bombardment.
Milosevic, on the other hand, claimed these prisoners died in the bombardment and quoted the findings of the local Serbian examining magistrate. According to these, the bodies of at least 93 prisoners were found in the debris.
After stating that the bombs created a big hole in the outer prison wall, Milosevic suggested the aim of the NATO bombing raid was to let "terrorists" out of prison, adding that some of the victims were possibly killed during their escape. The accused said the so-called "blast effects" of bombs accounted for the fact that photographs of victims he presented in the courtroom had no visible injuries.
The testimony of Jacky Rowland on what she saw on her two organised visits to the prison - after the first bombing and the evacuation of prisoners from Dubrava - neither confirmed nor conflicted the testimonies of Krasniqi and Baqai.
It allowed for the possibility that the events in Dubrava had unfolded as the two survivors described. Rowland expressed strong doubts about the version of events, which held that all the prisoners were killed by NATO bombs, but refused to speculate exactly how the prisoners were killed, if not by bombs.
Although the judges usually treat "journalists' opinions" with scorn, Kwon asked Rowland for an "assessment" of what actually happened, which she declined to give, saying she "did not have sufficient information".
The most effective and probably most relevant part of her testimony was her description of a prison room in which she saw about 25 bodies piled up in one place.
In addition to the fact that there was no visible damage from bombing in that room, Rowland was "especially disturbed" by the fact that the corpses had their trousers pulled down to the ankles, so that their underwear was visible. Indeed, it takes a hell of a "blast effect" to take somebody's pants off.
Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor at the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of SENSE News Agency
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