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Lazarevic Faces Gruesome Indictment

Belgrade authorities give indicted Serb general a hero’s farewell as he leaves to stand trial in The Hague.
By Ana Uzelac

Former Serbian general Vladimir Lazarevic arrived in The Hague this week some 15 months after being indicted for war crimes committed during the Kosovo conflict in 1999.

Praised at home as a “patriot” and a “brave man” and given a hero’s farewell when he departed for the Netherlands, Lazarevic will soon be facing one of the most gruesome indictments that Hague prosecutors have ever produced.

Together with the three other generals, Lazarevic is accused of running a months-long campaign of terror against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, using expulsion, intimidation and murder against the civilian population.

On February 3, the Hague tribunal confirmed that the 55-year-old former general had been transferred to the court’s detention unit in the coastal resort of Scheveningen, becoming its 50th detainee.

When he appears before the trial chamber on February 7, he is expected to enter a plea on the charges of crimes against humanity and violations of laws and customs of war, including deportations, forcible transfer, murders and persecutions of Kosovo Albanians after the start of the NATO bombing campaign in March 1999.

Lazarevic is accused together with Nebojsa Pavkovic, Vlastimir Djordjevic and Sreten Lukic, all of whom are all still at large. He is expected to plead not guilty.

After a series of international negotiations in early 1999 failed to produce a political solution for the rapidly deteriorating situation in Kosovo, NATO launched three-month’s of air strikes against Serbia.

From the first day of the bombardment, streams of Kosovo Albanians began to leave the province.

While the Serbian government claimed that these people were leaving to escape the NATO strikes, human rights workers in the field reported that the Serbian army and police forces were in fact engaged in systematic expulsion, intimidation and murders against the majority Albanian population.

At the time, Lazarevic commanded the Pristina Corps, which was one of the key army formations working in the province. In addition, the prosecution alleges that he also held command over all police and civil defence units working with his troops.

The prosecutors are hoping they will be able to prove that the forces under the command of the four generals conducted “a deliberate and widespread campaign of terror and violence” in Kosovo, aimed at expelling a substantial number of Albanians to neighbouring Albania and Macedonia and thus securing Serbian control over the province.

The indictment against the four generals is an unsettling narrative of a months-long campaign in which the soldiers, policemen and paramilitaries under their command “intentionally created an atmosphere of fear and oppression through the use of force … and acts of violence”.

This campaign allegedly included the widespread shelling of towns and villages, and the burning of homes, farms, businesses and mosques, which ended up making whole swaths of land uninhabitable.

It is claimed that the army and police forces went from settlement to settlement systematically threatening and expelling the Albanian population – beating, sexually assaulting and killing civilians in the process. Thousands of displaced people were forced to seek shelter in the forests and mountains, and many died as a consequence of harsh weather conditions, insufficient food, lack of medical attention or simple exhaustion.

The Serb forces often escorted groups of expelled Albanians to the borders, or even provided trucks, buses and occasionally trains to ensure that they would leave the country.

In addition, the Serbian troops systematically seized and destroyed personal identity documents belonging to the Albanians. The prosecution claims this was done “in order to erase any record of those who were deported and to deny them the right to return”.

At the time, Belgrade insisted that the Serb forces were doing nothing other than battling NATO and militants from the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.

But the prosecutors’ allegations are backed up by 18 documented cases of mass expulsions and 22 of murder that took place in Kosovo after the beginning of the NATO air strikes.

The prosecutors claim that on March 25, 1999, Serbian forces surrounded and attacked the village of Bela Crkva (Bellacerke), forcing many of its inhabitants to seek shelter near a railroad bridge over the nearby Belaja river.

“As the [Serb] forces approached the bridge, they opened fire on a number of villagers, killing 12 persons, including ten women and children. A two-year old child survived the incident," they claimed.

The remaining villagers sought shelter in the stream bed, but were forced out by the troops. Boys and men were separated from the rest and told to strip, ordered back into the streambed and mown down with machine gun fire. Sxity-five people were killed - only a handful survived.

Similar incidents are described as taking place all over the province, and include the documented killing of 105 men and boys in Mala Krusa (Kruse e Vogel); 44 civilians in the village of Suva Reka (Suhereke); 116 in the village of Izbica (Izbice) and 50 in the town of Djakovica (Gjakove).

Besides attempting to prove each allegation of expulsion or murder listed in the indictment, the challenge for the prosecutors will be to establish that the troops who committed the crimes were under Lazarevic’s command - and that he ordered or at least knew or had a reason to know about them.

Observers in Belgrade think that Lazarevic will focus on disproving the allegations of command responsibility for those crimes.

“He will try to show that even if the crimes did happen he did not know about them and could not be held responsible for them,” one Belgrade analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR.

Lazarevic was accorded full state honours during the week after he announced his decision to go to the Hague voluntarily.

The government officially greeted his decision as a “patriotic act” and offered guarantees to the tribunal for the general’s future provisional release.

Lazarevic was also received by the Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica and the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, who said he “respected” the general’s decision to surrender himself and “follow a difficult road in the interests of his state”.

The mayor of Lazarevic’s hometown of Nis organised a cocktail party in his honour, thanking the general for his decision to “help his nation in peace as he helped it in war”.

But the general surrendered only after it became glaringly obvious that he and his three co-accused had become an insurmountable obstacle on Serbia’s road to European integration.

The Serbian government headed by Kostunica - a staunch opponent of the tribunal - has refused to arrest any of the indictees thought to be holding out in Serbia, insisting on their voluntary surrender. This has angered the international community, which has been placing pressure on Belgrade to increase its cooperation with the tribunal.

Lazarevic is the first of the four indicted generals to surrender, allegedly after long negotiations with the government representatives. Nebojsa Pavkovic has recently hinted that he may yet follow in Lazarevic’s footsteps. However, Sreten Lukic’s intentions are as yet unknown, while Vlastimir Djordjevic is believed to reside in Russia.

Ana Uzelac is IWPR’s project manager in The Hague.

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