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


By Ana Uzelac in The Hague (TU No 407, 20-May-05)

Former assistant interior minister Colonel Obrad Stevanovic is the highest- ranking Serbian witness yet to appear in Milosevic’s defence case.

His testimony was intended to challenge the prosecutors’ claim that a parallel chain of command existed during the 1999 Kosovo war which allowed Milosevic to directly supervise the combined police, military and paramilitary forces during the conflict.

In another part of his testimony, the witness focused on the specific incidents listed in the Kosovo indictment, trying to disprove the allegations that the Serbian police committed crimes against Albanian civilians on a systematic basis.

Milosevic is accused of directing a massive and complex security forces operation to expel Kosovar Albanians out of the province between March and June 1999 – the period when his country was subjected to NATO air strikes. The campaign was accompanied by widespread and systemic intimidation of Albanian civilians, which included mass murders. The indictment lists 17 such cases and 22 of expulsion.

The prosecutors state that this operation was coordinated through the “joint command” that had been created in 1999, under then Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic. Prosecutors claim that the joint command gave Milosevic control over the Yugoslav ministry of defence, the Yugoslav army, the Serbian interior ministry and local defence units within Kosovo, bypassing the existing chain of command.

Obradovic was the first Milosevic defence witness to confirm the existence of the joint command – something that all previous defence witnesses consistently claimed they did not know anything about.

The prosecutors have never been able to obtain documents relating to the work of the joint command and Belgrade’s democratic government has claimed they could not locate any, suggesting they were destroyed. Milosevic’s former chef de cabinet, Goran Milinovic, is currently being investigated in Serbia on suspicion of hiding or destroying some 160 documents of the joint command.

But this week Milosevic’s witness managed to produce minutes from a meeting of the joint command, drawn up by Milinovic. In the minutes, Milosevic is noted addressing the people gathered, and after that Yugoslav Army’s Pristina corps commander Nebojsa Pavkovic gives an overview of the “fight against the NATO aggression” in Kosovo. Pavkovic has also been indicted by the Hague tribunal, and is currently in custody awaiting trial.

The witness insisted the joint command was not a real command structure, but an organ facilitating “horizontal cooperation” and exchange of information between the security forces in Kosovo, and did not infringe on the regular chain of command.

Obradovic is one of the rare highly placed officials in both the regular and the assumed parallel chain of command not to have been indicted by Hague prosecutors.

All his superiors, including the then interior minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic and Serbian prime minister Milan Milutinovic, have been indicted. So has the witness’ former colleague, another assistant interior minister Vlastimir Djordjevic, who is currently on the run, and his direct subordinate Colonel Sreten Lukic, who was in operational command over the regular police forces in Kosovo during the war there. Prosecutors have refused to comment on whether Stevanovic was ever the subject of a Hague tribunal investigation.

For the larger part of his testimony, Obradovic spoke about the intricate command structure within the Serbian police, the rules and regulations governing it and the details of its weaponry. He insisted throughout that the Serbian police never committed any systematic crimes in the province and were under strict orders to protect Albanian civilians.

To support this, he showed orders issued to the Serbian police at the time, banning shooting at civilians or even conducting operations in the populated areas. He also showed orders insisting that the police follow four basic principles when active in Kosovo, including the principle of the proportional use of force.

He also insisted that the Albanian insurgents fighting against the Serbian police in Kosovo at the time were in no way inferior with respect to their weaponry, and were in fact at an advantage due to their knowledge of the terrain, and the fact that they always carried out the first strikes.

But in what appears to be emerging as a pattern of examination in the defence case, Milosevic kept Obradovic’s testimony skirting around the factual issues of his indictment for the bulk of the first three days of the examination in chief. Factual evidence was dispersed in a sea of general allegations, and descriptions of police conduct in the year preceding the conflict.

Stevanovic also presented the chamber with the police statistics on the various kinds of security incidents in Kosovo during the NATO air strikes – and these were sorted not only by the type of incident but also by the ethnicity of the victims involved.

The statistics also confirmed there was in fact massive movement of the Albanian population out of Kosovo at the time, neatly registering literally tens of thousands of people leaving the region on a single day through various border crossings out of Kosovo. After a judges’ query, however, it turned out that the statistics did not show the reasons for people leaving Kosovo. The witness said only that it was “generally known” that the movement intensified “after the beginning of aggression” – referring to NATO air strikes at the time.

Only on the fourth day of his testimony did the witness focus on the concrete incidents mentioned in the indictment - the massacre of Albanian civilians in the villages of Racak and Izbica in January and May 1999 - compelling the judges to allow the testimony to last well beyond the scheduled 12 hours.

But by the end of the week, he failed to produce any new factual evidence on these cases, repeating only some of the evidence and the conclusions drawn by the previous witnesses who conducted the actual official Serbian investigation into the massacre. (See Courtside: Milosevic TU No 401, 08-Apr-05, and Courtside: Milosevic TU No 399, 25-Mar-05

This approach combined with the systematic late production of large amounts of evidence – too late for translations to be made in time for the testimony – tested the judges’ patience once again. Much of this week’s testimony was taken up with admonishing Milosevic – who insists on defending himself - for bringing repetitive and general evidence and instructing him to handle his evidence better, and trying to halt his leading questions.

“Mr Milosevic, you are on trial, you are facing specific charges and you keep on bringing general evidence,” a somewhat desperate sounding presiding Judge Patrick Robinson said at one point. “This is not a general situation. You are not at large.”

Kosovo is just one of the three indictments that Milosevic is facing in the Hague, and although he does not seem to be even close to wrapping it up, the judges have announced on May 20 that he has spent already over a third of the 150 days allocated to his defence against all three indictments.

Stevanovic’s testimony will continue next week.

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