Comment: KLA Trials Harm Reconciliation

Double standards in the sentences meted out by international judges fuels ethnic tensions.

Comment: KLA Trials Harm Reconciliation

Double standards in the sentences meted out by international judges fuels ethnic tensions.

The draconian sentences handed down to four former ethnic Albanian rebels will do nothing to promote reconciliation between Kosovo's communities.

And with most Kosovo Albanians considering the Llap/Lap Group trial, held under the aegis of the United Nations mission in Kosovo, as politically motivated it is also unlikely to bring the local population any closer to the international community.

Former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Rrustem Mustafa, or Remi, received a 17-year jail sentence for ordering the murder of five Kosovo Albanians he believed had collaborated with the Serbs and "failing to prevent illegal detention" in the Llap/Lap region of northern Kosovo during the 1998-99 conflict.

Nazif Mehmeti was sentenced to 13 years, Latif Gashi to 10 and Naim Kadriu to five.

Unsurprisingly, local Albanians and Serbs have reacted very differently to the July 17 sentencing by an international panel of judges.

While Serbs have hailed the prosecution of former rebels as a step forward, Albanians consider the war crime trials in region as selective justice, punishing only members of their community.

Just weeks before the sentencing of the former KLA members, international judges in the city of Peja/Pec sentenced a Kosovo Serb, Veselin Besovic, to seven years in prison for participating in the killing of 41 Albanian civilians during the 1999 conflict.

The lightness of the sentence sparked anger among witnesses and the families of the Albanian victims.

Moreover, the Besovic case is only one amongst a myriad of cases in which Kosovo Serbs accused of war crimes have gotten off lightly.

Indeed, the harshest sentence so far handed down to a Serb in Kosovo in relation to war crimes was 15 years for policeman Zoran Stojanovic who in 2001 went on trial in connection to the Recek/Racak massacre in which 45 Albanians were killed.

The overturning of a number of decisions by local panels in which Serbs were found guilty of war crimes in Kosovo has only complicated matters further.

One of at least three such cases in eastern Kosovo between 2000-2003 involves Momcilo Trajkovic, the head of the police station in the town of Kamenica, who was recently released following the quashing of a 20-year sentence imposed by local judges.

In the town of Vitina, Milos Jokic, jailed for 20 years, and Dragan Nikolic, for 12, have also been released by the international court panels.

The OSCE report on war crimes trials in Kosovo last year criticised the earlier local proceedings saying that the prosecutors had not had a firm grasp of the charges and had failed to provide appropriate evidence.

In all three of these cases, however, the witnesses insist they identified the men in court as being involved in killing and expelling Albanian civilians, as well as burning down their houses.

Most Albanians now suspect that behind the retrials there is a possible secret agreement between Belgrade and UNMIK related to the release of Albanian prisoners from Serbian jails in 2001.

Whatever the truth of this, in comparing the trials of Serbs and Albanians for war crimes in Kosovo it is clear that the international judges are imposing double standards.

In doing so, the war crimes trials, far from contributing to peace between the communities, have only turned Albanians further against Serbs and the international community.

This can be seen most graphically in protests that commenced after the sentencing of the Dukagjini Group a year ago and now in Podujevo as a reaction to the Llap/Lap Group trial.

From a Serb point of view, the sentencing of the former KLA rebels signals the increasingly normalising of the situation in Kosovo.

In their eyes, the harsh sentences may be perceived as justice being done and laying the groundwork for an even a more secure environment in which they can safely return to Kosovo.

However, in hardening the diametrically opposite stances of Albanians and Serbs, the trials as they are currently being conducted are not going to bring any progress to multi-ethnic life here.

Reconciliation cannot be achieved by harming one side, while satisfying the other.

It would now be most productive if the Albanians who perceive the sentencing of former KLA members as a great injustice could, instead of protesting, help the defence gather evidence to exonerate the defendants.

And, with an estimated 12,000 Albanians killed or unaccounted for in the war, Serbs need to ask themselves how many members of Serb military forces have so far received the sentences that they deserve.

Adriatik Kelmendi is the Managing Editor of the daily Koha Ditore

This is the first article in a series of pieces on the war crimes debate in Kosovo.

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