Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Serbia's Show Trials

Two current trials seem unlikely to reveal who was responsible for atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo.
By Natasa Kandic

Two war crimes cases are being tried in Serbia, but although professional judges are presiding over them, neither has so far amounted to little more than a show trial.


In both cases - one concerning crimes committed in Bosnia, and the other for Kosovo - only low-level figures are being tried, even though there are obvious grounds to try higher-level officers for command responsibility.


This is no surprise. The Serbian government has publicly stated that it is not interested in putting people on trial for command responsibility, and that only those who committed crimes with their own hands should be prosecuted.


This position - and the trials resulting from it - will ensure that the truth of what happened in the former Yugoslavia over the past decade remains buried.


If the government maintains this position until the Hague tribunal closes in 2008, the Serbian model of justice will not only prove unable to continue the work of the international court, but may actually undermine what has been accomplished.


One of the trials under way is that of four Bosnian Serbs charged with the abduction and murder of 17 Muslims from the Serbian village of Sjeverin on October 1992.


However, two of the accused - former Bosnian Serb soldier Milan Lukic, who is also wanted by The Hague, and Oliver Krsmanovic - did not appear in court as they are residents of Republika Srpska, RS, whose constitution bans the extradition of its citizens. The other indicted men are Dragutin Dragicevic and Sevic Djordje.


The indictment makes no mention of the suspects' superior officers. But one of the defendants' unit commanders did appear in court to testify for the prosecution.


Yugoslav army lieutenant-colonel Luka Dragicevic was chief of staff of the second light infantry Podrinje brigade until October 26, 1992, after which he was appointed its commander.


Dragicevic claimed in court that he did not know about the abduction and murder of the 17 Muslims until just a few months ago, when some of his friends saw something about it on television and told him.


And although both of the defendants and several witnesses stated categorically that Lukic answered to Dragicevic as a member of his brigade, the colonel claimed that he saw Lukic for the first time in the winter of 1993. He admitted that Krsmanovic was a brigade member, but claimed not to know the other defendants.


Dragicevic stated that all of the volunteers were embedded into the military chain of command in such a way that it was "simply impossible to have any formations that are not under someone's command".


By giving this testimony, Dragicevic essentially confirmed that while he had control over his subordinates, he did not take any measures to punish those responsible for the killings - which means that he failed in his duties as a commander.


However, since the judge is only trying those accused in the indictment, Dragicevic will not have to answer for his failure to take action against his subordinates - an action that could make him culpable for the crime through command responsibility.


In theory, the prosecutor could issue a new indictment charging Dragicevic with command responsibility for the crimes, but that won't happen. As a result, the low-level perpetrators will have to answer for crimes they carried out, but Serbia's military leadership will not.


The second trial underway concerns those indicted for the murder of 19 Albanians by members of the Special Anti-terrorist Reserve Unit, SAJ - known as the Scorpions - during the Kosovo conflict.


Again, only low-level members of the unit have been indicted. Neither the Scorpions' commanders or the Kosovo police are under investigation.


During the proceedings, several witnesses - most of them former police officers in Kosovo or members of the Scorpions - have denied even the most commonly accepted facts about the expulsion of Albanians during the 1999 NATO bombing,


Instead, the witnesses have repeated former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's interpretation of events in Kosovo - that the police defended the country from an aggressor, that the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, carried out terrorist operations, and that Albanians fled their homes of their own free will.


In giving their testimony, almost none of the witnesses showed any sympathy for the Albanian victims.


In once instance, the former Podujevo police chief Milan Radulovic said that he did not inspect the scene where six children, eight women and five men were killed because he did not want to have to destroy the evidence.


In another, SAJ member Predrag Fabijanic - who reportedly carried a wounded child out of the yard in which the murder was committed - was asked by the defence if he knew what had happened to the other wounded children. The witness replied that it wasn't his job to look for survivors.


In both these trials, it looks as if the police investigation has been restricted from the start by instructions not to expand the list of suspects, in order that the larger story - one that would implicate Serbia's leadership - would not have to be told.


Belgrade hopes that it can try specific crimes and put the blame on low-level perpetrators without ever having to answer for its involvement in what The Hague calls a "joint criminal enterprise" responsible for so much bloodshed.


Recently at The Hague, documents revealed that the Serbian interior ministry played a role in the Srebrenica massacre. Not long ago, mass graves were found in Serbia. These can hardly be brushed off as minor incidents - they no doubt involved a wide net of perpetrators, some of whom held positions of power.


Nonetheless, Serbia's official stance is to deny that any of these crimes were committed under a plan.


As long as this stance remains unchanged, war crimes trials in Serbian courts will be further confirmation that everything happened exactly the way Milosevic claims it did.


Natasa Kandic is director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade