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

Comment: Tribunal Losing Support in Kosovo

Hague prosecution of low-level Albanians is damaging Kosovars' confidence in the tribunal.
By Augustin Palokaj

Two national groups in the Balkans have so far strongly supported the work of the Hague tribunal - the Kosovo Albanians and the Bosnian Muslims. Both have backed the war crimes court because they suffered so much from their respective conflicts.


They hoped that punishing the architects and perpetrators of this war would bring them a sense of justice.


But recently, their trust in the process has been shaken. The reason is the widespread impression that the prosecutor's office is trying to equate the responsibility for crimes on all sides.


The prosecutors may want to win respect by indicating that they are unbiased and are charging people from all communities.


The problem is that in filing these charges to prove its impartiality, the prosecutors' office has seemed to be moved by political considerations in its choice of which cases, and which people, to investigate and prosecute.


Chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte insists that the tribunal's task is to process only high-level cases. This appears to be at odds with the indictment of two little-known Albanians - Haradin Balaj and Isak Musliu - accused of abuses while serving as junior guards at a prison camp at Lapushnik during the Kosovo war.


By contrast, presidents, ministers and generals from Serbia have been accused of crimes in Kosovo.


The Lapushnik case is a mystery. Without diminishing the gravity of the crimes committed at the prison, it remains unclear what criteria Del Ponte drew on in choosing to investigate this particular case. Does she regard it as a high-profile case? If not, why is she investigating it? Many minor cases are being left for local courts to deal with.


If crimes can be measured by the suffering inflicted and the numbers of people killed, then Lapushnik would be low on the list of possible indictments. Many cases of abuses by Serbian security forces would take precedence.


The seniority of the accused may be another factor. But in this case, two of the three men accused - the third is former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, officer Fatmir Limaj - were low-ranking.


The prosecutor's office made a mistake in indicting a fourth man over Lapushnik. Agim Murtezi was brought to The Hague to face charges earlier this year, but was released after it transpired that prosecutors had confused him with the person they wanted to indict.


No one in the prosecutor's office has found the courage to apologise publicly to Murtezi, despite the hardship he was put through as a result of his wrongful arrest, an elementary mistake by prosecutors. There has been no news on whether anyone in the prosecution is to be held accountable for the error.


The closer we look at these facts, the safer it is to assume that Lapushnik was chosen for reasons to do with ethnicity, and that prosecutors felt the need to investigate some Albanian cases to placate officials in Serbia.


This impression was strengthened when the prosecution said this month that it would not be raising new indictments against Serbs for crimes committed in Kosovo. This comes at a time when it is investigating two cases against KLA members.


But testimonies heard at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic suggest that many more Serbs, including individuals identified by witnesses, could be investigated for crimes in Kosovo. These cases would be much higher-profile than the trial of Musliu and Balaj.


Another case that has caused public anger, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the announcement that the former Bosnian president Alia Izetbegovic was under investigation for war crimes by prosecutors. This was announced just as his burial was taking place, and international officials of the stature of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson were mourning him as a hero who led his nation in a war of survival.


Nobody would deny that all sides did bad things, but it is unacceptable to compare the systematic crimes committed by Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo with the individual crimes of some Albanians and Bosnian Muslims.


Although they might say they care little for public opinion, and that they have a professional job to do, Hague prosecutors would do well to remember that one of the Tribunal's aims is to create a sense of justice for the victims.


Filing these charges against Kosovo Albanians and Bosnian Muslims creates a perception that the prosecutor's office is seeking to relativise, even downplay, the crimes committed by the Serbian state and its satellites in Croatia and Bosnia.


The Albanians of Kosovo and the Bosnian Muslims are the only two peoples in the former Yugoslavia who do not have indicted suspects at large. All their suspects have been handed over or arrested, in contrast to Serbia, where some 20 war crimes suspects are still at large.


Despite their wavering confidence, neither Albanians nor Bosnian Muslims should turn their backs on the Hague tribunal.


Augustin Palokaj is a senior correspondent with the newspaper Koha Ditore in Kosovo.