Kosovo: Crimes Against Serbs Investigated

UN appears to have overcome reluctance to prosecute Albanian militants.

Kosovo: Crimes Against Serbs Investigated

UN appears to have overcome reluctance to prosecute Albanian militants.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The international community has signalled that it intends to pursue Kosovo Albanians suspected of killing Serbs during and after the 1999 conflict, something it has so far been reluctant to do.

This move is certain to outrage the majority Albanian community, which sees itself as the victim of Belgrade aggression, and views as heroes the fighters of the former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, under suspicion for many of the murders of local Serbs.

Analysts say that the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, has so far been reluctant to pursue Albanians suspected of war crimes, in case this inflamed local tensions and led to public unrest.

However, the past fortnight has seen clear indications that this apparent policy is changing.

A November 11 meeting in Belgrade between UNMIK representatives and Serbian state bodies discussed ways in which the latter's services in the protectorate could aid current investigations into crimes committed against the Serb minority - one of the problems that UNMIK and The Hague have faced has been collecting adequate proof and persuading witnesses to come forward.

Vladimir Bozovic, head of the justice and human rights section in the Coordination Centre for Kosovo, who attended the meeting, told IWPR that the UNMIK judiciary had shown interest in receiving Serbian judicial documents which could prove that certain crimes had been committed in the protectorate.

"I think UNMIK has recently intensified its investigations into crimes committed against Serbs, but we expect even more from them," Bozovic told IWPR after the meeting.

According to UNMIK police figures, a total of 271 Serbs were killed and 650 went missing during, and shortly after, the Kosovo war - Belgrade claims the latter figure is closer to 1,300. Attacks on the minority are still a daily occurrence in the protectorate.

To date, three war crimes processes have begun against Kosovo Albanians - two in local courts and one at the Hague tribunal.

All three are for crimes allegedly committed by Albanians against their own people - civilians suspected of collaborating with the Milosevic regime.

The Serb authorities have often accused UNMIK of bias towards the Albanians, but this has been robustly denied.

However, observers believe that the UN body has deliberately delayed tackling the problem of Albanian violence against Serbs.

Many put this down to a desire to avoid conflict with the majority population - which is far from ready to face the issue.

Only a small number of Albanians acknowledge that members of their community persecuted the Serb minority.

Dukagjin Gorani, director of the Centre for Human Rights at Pristina University, said, "Albanians find it very hard to believe that some of their people could have killed civilians. Whatever the case, someone murdered those Serbs, and I doubt it was KFOR."

A former KLA fighter told IWPR that he knows there were many Serb civilian victims - especially after the conflict ended. " It is better that evidence against those who committed the crimes is revealed as soon as possible, to stop the criminalisation of the entire KLA," he said.

Though most of the majority community are against it, the UN now appears ready to bring KLA suspects to justice. For the first time since UNMIK came to Kosovo, an Albanian has been arrested and charged with the murder of a Serb.

Ramus Halimi was detained at the beginning of the last month in connection with the recent death of Sofijanka Jovanovic Peric, an elderly woman who had been expelled from her home in Gnjilane, and was shot dead upon her return.

And on November 6, UNMIK arrested five Albanians on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Slobodan and Radmila Stolic, both aged 80, and their 50-year-old son Ljubinko, who were found dead in their burned-out home in Obilic on June 4.

They were subsequently all released, but UNMIK spokesperson Dereck Chappell claims the investigation into the deaths - which were greeted with outrage in Serbia - has been boosted by information gained during interviews with the suspects.

UNMIK has also confirmed that an investigation is underway to identify three men in KLA uniforms who were photographed holding two severed human heads - thought to be those of abducted Serb soldiers.

The wartime photo was published by Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti on November 3, and the topic was discussed at the November 11 meeting.

"We talked and exchanged information on the photographs and on identifying the terrorists whose photographs had been published in the press," Bozovic told IWPR.

One Hague tribunal investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that a detailed investigation into the affair would help current tribunal probes into former KLA commanders.

"We learned that the photographs published in Vecernje Novosti had been in the hands of UNMIK for some time, and we believe the Serbian police handed them the pictures. We don't see why they didn't give them to us two years ago," he said.

Speculation is rife in Kosovo that a new indictments from the Hague is imminent, and may feature a former KLA commanders.

During her latest visit to Pristina on October 23, the tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte reiterated that she and her colleagues are investigating several ex-KLA men and added that indictments can be expected early next year.

The arrest on war crimes charges of Fatmir Limaj, a former KLA commander and former government member, sparked widespread protests in February.

There was further controversy when UNMIK rejected Kosovo's prime minister Bajram Rexhepi's suggestion that money from the state budget be donated to a defence fund set up by Limaj's family. The government then called on the public to give money to the fund, and an estimated 300,000 US dollars has since been raised.

In addition to their refusal to accept that some ex-KLA men may be war criminals, Kosovars fear that the international community's insistence on tracking down former militants suspected of crimes may have an adverse effect on the protectorate's bid for independence.

Kosovo's final status is not set to be resolved for some time yet, and there are concerns that Belgrade could use any successful war crimes prosecution as a reason to deny the region sovereignty. Bexhet Shala, director of the Human Rights Protection Committee KLMDNJ in Pristina said, "The international community favours the reintegration of Kosovo into Serbia and the current ethnic Albanian political leaders are obstacles to that so a witch-hunt is being waged against former KLA fighters," he told IWPR.

Tanja Matic is IWPR's project coordinator in Pristina.

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