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

Kosovo Case Takes on Mantle of Milosevic Trial

As prosecutors open case against senior officials charged with atrocities in Kosovo, observers say proceedings are haunted by the ghost of the ill-fated Milosevic trial.
By Janet Anderson
Prosecutors this week launched their case against six senior Serbian and Yugoslav officials charged with responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo in 1999.



As the proceedings got underway, the signs are that the case will be heavily influenced by the ill-fated trial of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, which ended prematurely with his death in custody in March.



The new trial is the first to focus on the activities of the Serbian and Yugoslav security forces in Kosovo since Milosevic’s own trial proceedings came to an end.



It is also the first trial in which judges have used new powers at their disposal to order prosecutors to cut down their case in the name of a speedy trial. This expansion of the judges’ powers came amid intense criticism surrounding the fact that Milosevic’s trial failed to arrive at its natural conclusion, despite having already dragged on for more than four years by the time of his death.



The six defendants in the current case include three generals from the Serbian police and the Yugoslav Army, VJ, who were indicted in 2003 – Sreten Lukic, Nebojsa Pavkovic, Vladimir Lazarevic. They are standing trial alongside three others who were charged in 2001 – the former VJ chief of staff Dragoljub Ojdanic, the former Serbian president Milan Milutinovic and the former deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia, Nikola Sainovic.



They all face four counts of crimes against humanity and one count of violations of the laws and customs of war in connection with mass expulsions and massacres allegedly committed by forces under their control during a campaign of terror against Kosovo Albanians between January and June 1999.



Prosecutors say that as many as 800,000 Albanians were driven from their homes in Kosovo – more than a third of the total population.



All have pleaded not guilty.



OPENING STATEMENTS



Lead prosecutor Thomas Hannis opened the trial this week by describing the Serb crackdown in Kosovo as “a widespread and systematic attack” on its civilian population, which created an “atmosphere of terror”.



“The evidence will show that these six accused were co-perpetrators with [the late Yugoslav president] Slobodan Milosevic in a joint criminal enterprise… the aim of which was to ensure continued Serbian control over the province,” he continued.



He went on to describe how, at a meeting in October 1998, Milosevic told NATO representatives that the “solution” for Kosovo would be found at the beginning of the following year, and that “the solution will be the same as Drenica 1945/46 – we got them together and we shot them”.



Although the detailed allegations against the six accused relate to events starting in 1999, the prosecutor’s pre-trial brief makes it clear that these alleged crimes were just “the final chapter” in an escalating pattern of violence aimed at cementing control of the province in the face of increasing demands for independence.



Hannis said many Kosovo Albanians were simply rounded up, put on trains and sent to the border. He showed the court video images of people walking along railway lines and others being transported in tractors or trains.



He also sought to pre-empt the possible defence argument, which was employed by Milosevic, that the real reason for the exodus was a NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, which began in 1999 in response to the situation in Kosovo.



The prosecutor described how forces attached to the police would go into towns or villages, raping inhabitants, burning homes and forcing their populations to flee. All of this, he said, created “an atmosphere of fear”, which would then be transmitted to neighbouring villages, encouraging people there to leave to avoid same the fate.



The prosecutor also countered suggestions that the Serbian and Yugoslav security forces in Kosovo were engaged in escorting Albanian refugees to safety. He promised to present evidence showing that the security forces forced refugees to hand over identification documents at the border and took license plates from tractors, in order to try to stop people returning.



Hannis gave details of various incidents of alleged crimes described in the indictment against the six accused. For one, at Suva Reka, he showed video footage of a burnt-out coffee shop, where at least 44 civilians, including 15 children, are said to have been herded in by the security forces, and then shot and blown up.



The case, he said, would include testimony from a woman who survived the atrocity.



Hannis also outlined how bodies of those killed in Kosovo were removed from the sites where they were originally buried and moved elsewhere, as part of an effort to hide evidence of crimes. This, he said, included many bodies that were transferred to a mass grave on the grounds of the training centre of an elite Serbian anti-terrorist unit near Belgrade.



The prosecutor also argued that the accused in the present case had failed to punish forces under their command for crimes committed in Kosovo. Some of the evidence for this, he said, was based on material provided by a defence witness in the Milosevic case. This material, he claimed, showed that over 90 per cent of all the crimes punished were for minor disciplinary offices, while no one was punished for murder or rape.



Occasional rare investigations of serious incidents were just superficial, Hannis argued, and were just intended to show the outside world that the authorities were trying to take action.



“We will show crimes were not only tolerated, but ordered,” he said.



The prosecutor said the case would include a number of insider witnesses, including Serb members of the VJ and police who would testify “with varying degrees of reluctance”. Some, he said, were reluctant to appear because they are afraid of being labelled traitors, while others are themselves implicated in crimes.



“Some will be downright hostile to the prosecution,” he warned, adding that he hoped the judges would be able to separate the wheat from the chaff when it came to their testimonies.



Hannis also addressed the question of why such crimes should have occurred. He argued that Kosovo was central to the political survival of Milosevic and his circle.



While he admitted the prosecution is not in possession of a “smoking gun document” outlining the “final solution” for Kosovo, Hannis insisted, “This was a plan directed from above.”



He also insisted that the deaths of so many ethnic Albanians were not the result of collateral damage, but stemmed from a deliberate attempt to “modify the ethnic balance of Kosovo”.



The evidence for this, he said, included the coordinated nature of the attacks, the fact that so many woman, children and elderly were among the dead, the efforts to conceal crimes and the confiscation of identification documents. He also said the various statements made by Milosevic pointed in the same direction, as did the fact that individuals who disagreed with his position found themselves out of a job.



When Hannis had finished, Ojdanic took to the floor to take advantage of his right to make a statement to the court which is not under oath.



Outlining his military career, he insisted that he was a professional soldier, who had served his people faithfully for 42 years. He said he had trained officers from all ethnic groups within the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA – the national army prior to the break-up of the old Yugoslav order in the early Nineties.



When Yugoslavia began to split apart, he said, “I never for a moment believed I should take sides, seeing the deterioration in ethnic relations.”



He described the charges against him as “unjustified” and said they could only have been brought against a human being without honour.



He also said that he, along with others, had been resolved to solve the problem in Kosovo by diplomatic means. If that wasn’t possible, he said, then the fall-back plan was to defend Yugoslavia by all means possible.



Because of the nature of the conflict in Kosovo, he said, it was difficult to distinguish the frontline from the rear and civilians from combatants.



“Everything I did was against the KLA [the Kosovo Liberation Army, pro-independence Albanian rebels] and then against the NATO aggression,” he said. “I am not guilty under any of the counts of the indictment.”



Denying that there was ever any plan for the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo, he added, “Had it existed…I would have opposed it.”



THE MILOSEVIC CONNECTION



Even in its early stages, the trial shows obvious links with the proceedings against Milosevic.



Milutinovic and Sainovic were in fact originally indicted alongside Milosevic, before it was decided that his ought to be heard separately.



The former Yugoslav president is mentioned constantly in the indictment and in the prosecution’s pre trial brief and is listed as a member of the so-called joint criminal enterprise in which the six accused are said to have been involved in.



The chamber hearing the case even includes one of the judges who oversaw the Milosevic trial, Judge Iain Bonomy.



Judith Armatta, who monitored the Milosevic trial for the Coalition for International Justice, told IWPR that the prosecution case was bound to be influenced by lessons picked up from that trial. “They have had a run-through, so this time they should have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t, which witnesses are good and which not,” she said.



Prosecution spokesperson Anton Nikiforov confirmed that much evidence used in the Milosevic trial would be carried over into the current proceedings, although he also added that “some witnesses we were not happy with and we will not use”.



There are also likely to be parallels in the approaches taken in the defence cases. Armatta told IWPR that she thought the current accused would use the same tactics that Milosevic did: claiming that Kosovo Albanians were in fact fleeing NATO bombing; arguing that the authorities were just exercising a legitimate use of state power to stop terrorism; asserting that civilians were killed in cross-fire or by NATO or in isolated incidents of crimes; and suggesting that the KLA provoked the conflict in the first place and committed at least some of the massacres themselves in order to secure international intervention on their side.



Observers say there is little chance that the accused will try to pin the blame on Milosevic in order to play down their own roles. All are considered loyalists to Milosevic, as was partly illustrated by the furore earlier this year when three of the accused – Sainovic, Ojdanic and Pavkovic – were all spotted attending his funeral in Serbia, in violation of the rules governing their provisional release from custody while awaiting trial.



JUDGES CLAMPING DOWN ON THE PROSECUTION



Judges used their new powers to reduce the prosecution case amid concerns that the trial could otherwise take more than two years. In the end, they said that three sides of alleged killings – Racak, Padaliste and Dubrava Prison – should not be included in the trial.



Underlining that the prosecution’s stated aim is to prove “ethnic manipulation or modification of Kosovo’s population through deportation forcible transfer and associated acts of persecution including murder of Kosovo Albanians”, the judges noted that “unlike other killing sites, none of [these] three is associated with what the prosecution terms ‘deportation sites’”.



The judges also noted that “none of the three sites is located in the 13 municipalities the prosecution identified as the focus of its case”.



The prosecution had objected strongly to the judges exercising this power, saying that they themselves are in the best position to determine what should be part of their case. Nikiforov confirmed to IWPR that the prosecution would apply for permission to appeal the ruling.



Even under the current ruling, the judges have allowed that evidence relating to these three sites “may eventually be permitted” if they feel it is necessary.



They were also quick to stress that their decision should in no way be interpreted as meaning that the events in these three locations were of less significance than events elsewhere.



Janet Anderson is the director of IWPR’s International Justice Programme in The Hague.

More IWPR's Global Voices