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

Macedonia Gets Ready for War Crimes Trials

As the country prepares to try its first war crimes cases, many wonder whether the local judiciary will be up to the task.
By Sara Goodman
The river Vardar, which runs through the centre of Macedonia’s capital Skopje, symbolises the ongoing difficulties facing this country, where ethnic tensions still run deep enough to influence many aspects of life.



On the north side of the river, the inhabitants are mostly from the Albanian minority, which make up about 25 per cent of the population. Across the bridge to the south, there are mostly ethnic Macedonians.



That divide grew wider in 2001, when Macedonia experienced a near civil war between ethnic Albanian rebels demanding greater rights and Macedonian government forces.



The ongoing lack of integration between the two groups remains an issue as the local judiciary prepares for the trial of four cases referred to it by the Hague tribunal.



The cases deal with crimes allegedly committed by members of the then ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, NLA, many of whom are now members of the coalition government. The Hague tribunal, which is under pressure to end its work by 2010, is sending them back to be tried in national courts.



A major question on the minds of many within the international community and the local population is whether the local courts are sufficiently prepared to deliver a fair trial when the cases actually do arrive in Macedonia.



“It is a key moment in which the country can show it is going down the path of rule of law and not reverting to political deal-making,” said Sally Broughton, spokeswoman for the OSCE’s Skopje mission.



The tribunal initially investigated five cases from the 2001 conflict.



However, prosecutors decided that only one sufficiently fit its mandate - to focus on the most senior people responsible for war crimes. That case, against Macedonia’s former interior minister Ljube Boskoski and his ex-bodyguard Johan Tarculovski recently began in The Hague.



The four other cases were initially referred back to Macedonia in April 2005, but because of various delays have yet to arrive.



There is much speculation in Macedonia about when - and if - the cases will make it back to the country.



“Right now everything is unclear,” said Iso Rusi, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Republic of Macedonia. “The minister of justice [in Macedonia] is supposedly asking for the cases, The Hague is supposedly returning them, but nothing is actually going on.”



Ljiljana Pitesa, information assistant for the office of the spokesperson for the prosecutor, said the tribunal was waiting for several key benchmarks to be met before transferring the cases to Macedonia. They include training for local prosecutors and judges and the introduction of several important laws into the local legal system.



She said the tribunal wanted to ensure the national courts are ready to handle the cases, but that it is now ready to transfer them by the end of the summer.



The Macedonian judiciary has been working to meet the international standards.



Anyone who might be involved with the four cases, including judges, prosecutors and interpreters, has had an intensive six-month course in international humanitarian law.



This programme, initiated by the Academy for Training of Judges and Prosecutors of the Republic of Macedonia and supported by the OSCE and the US embassy, covers various aspects of international humanitarian law, including witness protection, command responsibility and proving chain of command and how to define armed conflict.



Tanja Temelkoska-Milenkovic, executive director of the academy, said the legal system has been working diligently to prepare for the four cases.



“It’s considered as a government priority, because the Macedonian judiciary will be judged by the international community very carefully,” she said.



One issue on the minds of many Macedonians is the tribunal’s decision to prosecute only Boskoski and Tarculovski. Some say it has opened the door further for possible future tensions between the two ethnic groups.



“There is a feeling of bitterness that international justice isn’t treating the conflict equally,” said Ljubomir Frcskoski, professor of international law at St. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje.



However, Frcskoski believes that as long as the local courts follow the rule of law and apply that standard to the cases when they do come back, a sense of justice and equality will be restored.



This means making the court process transparent and decisions made by the local prosecutors public and clear.



By doing this, many in the international community hope people will accept the court’s findings and be able to close that chapter of the country’s history.



"There needs to be a legally sound consideration of the case files, according to international humanitarian legal principles, as well as applicable human rights law," said Victor Ullom, head of the Rule of Law Unit of the OSCE’s Skopje mission.



However, there is still a concern among some that there continues to be the opportunity for political maneuvering within the Macedonian legal system when dealing with the controversial cases that came out of the conflict.



“The judiciary is not in a position to provide a fair process when people are accused of events from 2001,” said Rusi. “The daily politics and ethnic emotions still influence court procedure.”



The process of transferring the cases back is complicated by the fact that the four cases involve members from the rebel Albanian group, the National Liberation Army, NLA, who are now politicians in the opposition group, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.



One worry is the role an amnesty law adopted in October 2001 will play in determining the outcomes of the cases. This law granted amnesty for all NLA members except those suspected of war crimes.



However, people interpret differently what this law means. Some, including the former NLA members, say it means amnesty applies to everyone not tried before The Hague, which would include the four cases due to be sent back.



Others disagree, saying anyone suspected of war crimes, regardless of whether the case was tried in The Hague, is not eligible for amnesty.



The clarification of this question will prove to be one of the most important issues addressed by the national courts, according to Ullom. He said he hopes the courts will follow the rule of law and not backroom politics when they make their opinion known



Establishing the rule of law will also be an important indicator of the country’s readiness to join the European Union, for which it first became a candidate in 2005.



Judge Jani Nica, a criminal court judge from Skopje who just returned from training in The Hague, is confident the system is well prepared to handle the cases when they arrive. He added Macedonian judges are becoming familiar with the work of the Hague tribunal and international humanitarian law.



“We as judges can handle the cases and we’re ready to show the readiness of the courts,” he said. “The Macedonian judges and courts are obliged to directly apply international conventions to the trials, and we’re prepared for this.”



Rusi has less faith in the courts and said the tribunal would be making a mistake if it sends the cases back without any indication of its findings.



He wants Hague prosecutors to clearly state whether they found enough evidence to support a war crimes indictment. Without such direct intervention, Rusi fears the political influences on the local courts leave the trials open to ethnic stereotyping and manipulation.



“The only reasonable behavior from the prosecutor is to return the cases with a clear explanation, so our judiciary doesn’t have room to play political games,” said Rusi.



Pitesa said the tribunal is turning over full jurisdiction of the cases to the Macedonian judiciary, meaning it is up to the local courts to determine how best to proceed.



“These are investigative files, which require additional investigative work. Once the cases are returned, they will be the full responsibility of the Macedonian authorities, and it will be for the Macedonian prosecutors and judges to decide on the evidence collected and to conduct additional investigations and make decisions as to whether to proceed or not,” said Pitesa.



The mistrust of the local courts runs deep for many Macedonians.



For Goran Spasevski, a 27-year-old shop employee, it is hard to believe in the promises of a reformed judiciary.



“At this moment it’s like a circus. What they’re saying isn’t realistic for the nation,” said Spasevski.



However, not everyone is pessimistic. Frcskoski said he thinks the courts will be able to deliver a fair trial in these four cases because of the close monitoring of the international community.



“There is practically no space for serious mistakes in the local system and no position to make a risky movement, like a revenge judgment. It’s all being watched by the international community. Judges will be very exposed, so they will think many times before making their decisions,” he said.



Hari Ajcev, a 22-year-old law student in Skopje, shares this optimism.



“Our court can proceed with the trials - it has the appropriate laws and procedures to handle them. Our law system isn’t perfect, but there are enough educated and well-qualified judges,” said Ajcev.



Shpend Devaja, a human rights lawyer in Skopje, is less confident. He said it is very difficult to change the mindset of older, more established judges.



“The courts are still dealing with emotion, and I’m not sure they would respect international standards. You need new faces, young people to bring about reform,” said Devaja.



For Frcskoski, the most important legacy of these cases will be the ability of the courts to try such complicated cases, regardless of the outcome.



“Macedonia has to see it has capacity enough to handle such issues. We need to break through the idea that our courts are incapable. We need to finish that story, regardless of whether [the judgment is in favour of] Macedonians or Albanians,” he said.



Others worry that whatever the outcome, one of the groups will feel slighted, which could raise ethnic tensions again.



“We are creating a lot of stereotypes based on the conflict of 2001,” said Rusi. “If we don’t solve the problems, we are creating a base for other clichés and stereotypes to be built on. Perhaps in the future we are going to pay the price for this.”



With so many questions still unanswered, people in Macedonia are watching closely to see how the situation pans out because of the lasting repercussions these cases will have for the future of the Macedonian judiciary.



"Although only a few individuals are direct stakeholders in the cases, how [the cases] are treated does affect the every day lives of citizens,” said Broughton.



"People will want to see if the judiciary handles them in a strictly legalistic, rule of law manner, because if so it would give them more faith in the system's ability to treat their own cases."



Sara Goodman is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.