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The trial of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic continued this week with his defence witness inadvertently boosting the prosecution case, by pointing to the existence of a secretive command structure linking Milosevic directly with Kosovo atrocities.
It came as he was attempting to show that the Yugoslav army fought only legitimate battles with Albanian guerrillas, who allegedly tried to take over the control of the southern Kosovo province during the NATO air strikes on Serbia in spring 1999.
In the second week of his testimony, Yugoslav army general Bozidar Delic showed the court documents corroborating the existence and the nature of the Joint Command for Kosovo and Metohija – a body whose importance Milosevic has repeatedly played down.
Milosevic is charged with orchestrating a large-scale ethnic cleansing operation in Kosovo that took place at the same time as the NATO strikes. Some 800,000 Kosovo Albanians were expelled to neighbouring Macedonia and Albania between March and June that year, in a campaign that included systematic looting, rapes and murders.
The prosecutors allege that the operation was planned and overseen by the Joint Command – a parallel command structure outside of the normal army or police chain of command, which was allegedly issuing binding orders to both Serbian police and Yugoslav army units.
The body is said to have comprised not only police and army officers stationed in Pristina, but also high-ranking politicians who had direct contact with Milosevic.
Milosevic maintains that this organ was a just a “coordinating body” of military and police commanders who met to exchange information, and had no authority to issue commands.
Democratic Belgrade governments have so far been unable to locate the archive of the Joint Command, which the prosecutors requested years ago. Last year, the authorities there even opened a criminal investigation against Milosevic’s former chef de cabinet Goran Milinovic, whom they suspect of having destroyed the archive.
But an apparently written order signed by the Joint Command surfaced in court on June 30 among the hundreds of documents that Delic brought with him to show the Yugoslav army’s allegedly clean human rights record before and during the war.
The order, marked “strictly confidential” and bearing the serial number 455-63, related to a military operation Delic was ordered to conduct in his area of responsibility in southwestern Kosovo.
Judge O’Gon Kwon of South Korea interrupted the witness testimony, noticing the order’s header “Joint Command for Kosovo and Metohija” and inquiring as to what this actually meant.
The question triggered a convoluted and occasionally surreal questioning session, in which the three judges managed to obtain an abundance of information from the witness that he was likely never meant to offer.
After confirming that the header indeed said Joint Command, the witness first acted surprised and tried to explain that he “never paid any attention” to who the order was actually coming from.
When asked to explain what this header could mean, he started explaining how in his view, the body was actually related to a period in 1998 when the Yugoslav army and Serbian police would often meet in Kosovo capital Pristina to “coordinate their actions in the field”.
Ironically, Delic spent the bigger part of last week trying to show that during 1998, Yugoslav army acted separately from the Serbian police, mainly protecting the state borders and hardly ever engaging in tasks inside the Kosovo territory.
The reason why the letter was headed Joint Command, the witness explained, is that “if it said only Pristina Corps, it would not have been binding for the police” – confirming the prosecutor’s thesis that the Joint Command issued binding orders, which also affected the police.
Prompted by further questions from the judges, Delic volunteered even more potentially damaging information for the accused, saying that he didn’t know who was in charge of the Joint Command, but mentioned the then deputy prime minister in Milosevic’s government Nikola Sainovic, the man who prosecutors maintain was the key link in the parallel political chain of command headed by Milosevic.
Delic then quickly tried to persuade the judges that he “never obeyed any orders coming from civilians”, only following those of the army’s Pristina Corps.
The long questioning session finished with Judge Kwon discovering and making public that Pristina Corps and Joint Command orders before the air strikes had the same first digits in their serial numbers – providing evidence that the latter took over command of the former and even used its official communication lines.
Earlier in the week, Delic had spent the best part of his testimony painting a picture of rising tensions in Kosovo in the second half of 1998, marked by Kosovo Albanian guerrilla attacks and ambushes on the army convoys. Delic maintained that these attacks forced the army - whose role was primarily to defend the borders of rump Yugoslavia - to begin operating deeper inside the entity.
Delic also brought numerous orders he personally issued on various occasions in 1998 and 1999, demanding from his soldiers to respect Geneva conventions, act properly towards the prisoners and never shoot without being first shot at - especially in the case of civilians.
But some of these orders mentioned that the “civilian population must be moved from the zones” of army engagement – and the witness was not asked to specify whether the civilians were ever helped to return afterwards.
Several Yugoslav army insiders that testified earlier in the same trial described cases where Delic personally organised plunder operations against Albanian villages and directed attacks on settlements knowing that there were only civilians left there and that “no-one should be left alive”.
Attempting to counter the aforementioned claims, Delic described this week his version of an attack on the village of Jeskovo in March 1999, insisted the army killed only nine Albanian insurgents there.
But according to a protected witness K-41, who testified in the prosecution case three years ago, the unit under Delic’s command killed ten civilians there, even though they did not offer any resistance. He also claimed that Delic’s officers later that month ordered executions of 15 Albanian civilians in the village of Trnje.
Delic sought to undermine this testimony by asserting that the witness must have had “ulterior motives” for his accusations.
The prosecution is expected to cross-examine Delic next week.
Ana Uzelac is IWPR’s project manager in The Hague.
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