By Ana Uzelac in The Hague (TU No 408, 27-May-05)


By Ana Uzelac in The Hague (TU No 408, 27-May-05)

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Throughout the week, Stevanovic talked at length about the conduct of the Serbian police during its three month long operation in Kosovo in 1999.

But his record testimony - which seemed set this Friday, May 27, to enter its fourth consecutive week - offered a number of theories and not much factual evidence to counter the indictment’s claims of Serbian police abuse against Albanian civilians.

And as the week progressed, the judges seemed to grow increasingly mistrustful of the witness, who kept contradicting statements made by those of his subordinates who had appeared as defence witnesses earlier in the trial.

The former Yugoslav president is running his own defence against charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide listed in three indictments covering the wars fought in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Nineties.

The Kosovo indictment accuses him of orchestrating a campaign of mass expulsion of Kosovo Albanians from the province. The campaign was run during the NATO air strikes on Serbia between March and June 1999 and was - according to the prosecutors - accompanied by widespread murders and the looting and burning of Albanian-owned houses. The indictment lists 17 cases of mass murders and 22 of mass expulsions.

But the witness this week offered an alternative view of some of those events - starting with alleged mass murders of Kosovo Albanians in the villages of Izbica, Kotlina and in the Dubrava prison.

The prosecutors alleged that at the end of March 1999, Serbian police forces executed around 120 Albanian men in Izbica, after first separating them from their families. The atrocity was uncovered when NATO forces published aerial photographs of rows of fresh graves in the vicinity of the village.

But Stevanovic insisted this week that the people buried in those graves were Albanian guerrillas killed in battle - not civilians, as the indictment alleges.

The witness tried to counter the earlier testimonies of Izbica massacre survivors by showing blurry black and white photographs of the grave markers there, taken by Serbian police officers who investigated the scene weeks later. Some of the markers carried the hand-carved inscription "UCK" – in Albanian, short for the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought a guerrilla war against the Serbian security forces at the time. The witness insisted that these markers must have been made by comrades of the fallen Albanians.

In the village of Kotlina, the prosecutors alleged that Serbian troops killed Albanian men and threw their bodies into wells, burning the village as they passed through it. Here again the witness insisted that the casualties were not civilians, but Albanian guerrilla fighters killed in the mop-up operation. He showed photographs made during the Serbian police investigation into the incident, which in his view indicated that the wells were in fact well-like bunkers that the Albanian insurgents used as shelters.

But it was the witness' testimony on yet another incident - the alleged massacre of Dubrava prison inmates in May 1999 - that appeared to raise the judges' doubts about his credibility.

Prosecutors allege that after two NATO air raids on May 19 and 21 that year, the prison guards took revenge on their Albanian inmates, lined them up in the prison yard and opened fire on them, killing around 50 people.

One previous defence witness - police officer Radomir Paponjak - testified that some of the Dubrava victims died in air raids, while others were killed by the guards as they tried to flee the bombarded jail. This week's witness - who was also Paponjak's superior – claimed, however, that not a single prisoner was killed by the guards at the time.

When asked again by Judge Iain Bonomy of Scotland about this claim, the witness repeated he had "no information" about any prisoner being killed in Dubrava while attempting to flee. When the judge confronted him with the statement of his subordinate, Stevanovic seemed to lose his place for a moment, before rushing to explain that he "of course, had some information about the plans for such an escape, but not that it ever really happened".

Similar inconsistencies kept surfacing throughout the rest of this week’s testimony, as the witness sought to place the blame for the mass exodus of Albanian civilians from Kosovo in these months on a combination of NATO air strikes and a deliberate attempt by the international community to blacken the reputation of the Belgrade authorities.

Stevanovic told the court that he had personally tried to convince one large group of Albanian refugees gathered near the town of Malisevo to go home. "But they didn't want to," he explained.

This prompted the presiding Judge Patrick Robinson of Jamaica to ask the witness whether he had ever tried to establish what reason the refugees may have had for such a refusal.

"They were reticent in talking to us," the witness replied. "But the only answer they gave us was ‘NATO strikes’."

He also insisted that the representatives of international humanitarian organisations such as the International Committee of Red Cross were "working behind the back" of the Serbian government and spoiling their efforts to get the refugees to return to their homes - mainly by advising them they would not be safe there.

Earlier, he suggested a similar conspiracy as an explanation for the fact that the bodies of Albanian civilians were found in mass grave near Belgrade after Milosevic's fall from power in 2000.

The former Serbian top policeman told the court it was still "a mystery" to him how the bodies ended up in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica, and suggested they may have been moved there by unspecified people who wanted to embarrassed Serbia.

Stevanovic also told the court at length about the instructions that the Serbian police issued to the troops in the field at the time, ordering them to protect refugees, give them food and water and move them to "points of security" within the Kosovo territory, where they would be outside of the scope of battles between the police and the insurgents.

This explanation prompted the presiding judge to comment that in his experience as a high ranking United Nations human rights official "the regimes that violated human rights the most usually had the best provisions to protect them".

The judge then called the accused and his witness to focus on concrete examples of how the Serbian police followed these instructions. But both failed to offer such examples.

The witness also claimed he had not heard of any paramilitary units operating in Kosovo, but shortly after the judges noticed that a translated minute from a Serbian interior ministry meeting - which Milosevic presented in court - contained a clear reference to Serbian police having contacts with Serbian volunteers, who were not members of any official army or military formation. "We should be approaching and engaging volunteers carefully," the minutes read.

When questioned by the judges about this discrepancy in his testimony, the witness engaged in a complicated explanation, and slipped into talking about the worries that Serbian officials had about these volunteers "in view of the previous experience in earlier wars".

The judges tried to probe this issue further, but after some initial confusion the witness explained that he had in mind a 1992 instance where Bosnian Serb volunteers conducted two kidnappings of Serbian citizens of Muslim origin in the border area with Serbia.

The examination in chief of the former assistant interior minister - initially scheduled for 12 hours - has lasted twice as long. It is highly likely that the cross-examination may take the whole of next week; and despite the witness's best efforts he may enter it with dubious credibility.

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

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