Radovan Paponjak, the head of the Serbian police forces in the Kosovo town of Pec, testified this week on two episodes in the Kosovo indictment against Milosevic – the alleged mass expulsion of Kosovo Albanians from Pec, and the gruesome killings of Albanian inmates of the Dubrava prison in spring 1999.
But the concrete evidence he presented was difficult to spot in a sea of background information that the increasingly exasperated judges warned was of little, if any, relevance to the defence case.
Milosevic is facing more than 60 charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in three separate indictments relating to wars in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia respectively. He had already spent eight months of his defence time addressing only Kosovo charges, and seems set to spend at least another month doing the same.
The former Yugoslav president is charged with orchestrating mass expulsions of Kosovo Albanians and running a campaign of terror in Kosovo which coincided with the NATO air strikes on Serbia between March and June 1999. This campaign is alleged to have included the systematic and/or widespread murders of Albanian civilians and prisoners. The indictment against him lists 17 separate cases of mass killings, and 22 episodes of mass expulsions.
Paponjak’s testimony was intended to cast doubt on the expulsion campaign in the town of Pec. The indictment alleges that on March 27 and 28 1999, Serb security forces went from house to house in Pec forcing Kosovo Albanians to leave.
During these two days, according to the indictment, some Albanian houses were set on fire and a number of people were shot.
Prosecutors allege that soldiers and police were stationed along every street directing the Albanians toward the town centre, where those without cars or other vehicles were forced to get on buses or trucks and leave in the direction of the border with Albania. While crossing the border they were deprived of their identity documents, in an apparent attempt to prevent their return.
Paponjak agreed that that there had been “intense crowds in the centre of town” on the two days referred to by the indictment, and that the streets of Pec were “flooded with people”, as many as 10,000. But he insisted that the Albanians were fleeing from NATO air strikes and not from Serbian police.
While he admitted that Serb police had also taken to the streets, the witness insisted they were only “regulating the traffic” and “clearing the bottlenecks”.
He also admitted houses on the suburbs of Pec were burning, but could not say who had set them on fire. The witness also confirmed that “sporadic gunfire” could be heard, but said he did not know who was firing.
Serbian police, he insisted, had no reason to send the Albanians away, because their presence effectively guaranteed the safety of the Serbian security forces in the region.
“With them gone we remained a sole target [for the NATO bombs],” explained Paponjak. “We actually wanted them to stay, but could not prevent them from leaving if they wanted to do so.”
However, this relevant detail only emerged at the end of the witness’ first day of testimony, and after some fours of questioning by the defendant on inter-ethnic relations and Albanian guerrilla activity in 1998.
The judges - visibly unhappy with such a development - prolonged the hearing until the end of Paponjak’s testimony on events in Pec, but have warned Milosevic that they expect him to stick to events in 1999 for the rest of the examination.
But the following day Paponjak’s testimony again veered off into a time period not covered by the indictment, with the witness presenting police documents of fatalities in Pec in the late Nineties, apparently in an attempt to prove that it was Serbs, not Albanians, who were getting killed in Kosovo.
Somewhat exasperated, Judge Iain Bonomy of Scotland asked Milosevic why the bulk of his evidence was concentrating on events that occurred before the events dealt with in the indictment.
“Is it because there is no evidence to support you in this period?” he asked, adding later that the bulk of the testimony heard this week will “not help in any way” when he comes to make a decision on Milosevic’s guilt or innocence.
After yet another half hour of mortality statistics, Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson of Jamaica intervened to advise Milosevic that such statistics were not helpful. “We need to hear about the circumstances in which these people died,” he warned.
Milosevic answered with yet more generalised information about how many people had died in “terrorist” and “anti-terrorist” attacks, followed by the introduction of yet another official police report – this time on mass movement of Albanians out of Pec in March 1999. In it, the Pec police officials concluded that there were no expulsions, but that Albanians had left of their own free will – partly through fear of NATO, and partly after urging from unknown persons in their midst.
But the information in this report seemed yet again so general and without foundation that it prompted the usually reticent Judge O-Gon Kwon of Korea to join his colleagues from the bench in reminding Milosevic that “raw material” on any of these events “would be much more important” than the official police summaries.
Later in the week, Paponjak’s testimony moved to cover one of the more gruesome episodes listed in the Kosovo charge sheet – the mass executions of Albanian prisoners of the Kosovo’s Dubrava prison in May 1999. The prison is alleged to have housed a large number of political prisoners and those suspected of connections with the guerrilla movement.
The indictment alleges that a few days after NATO bombs destroyed the prison’s administrative headquarters and one wing of the building, the guards allegedly took their revenge on the inmates. Its claimed they killed tens if not hundreds in two days of mayhem that followed the strikes.
In the prosecution phase of the long-running trial, several witnesses testified about the events in Dubrava prison.
Milosevic insisted on showing - in fast forward - two hours of video footage of the Dubrava prison after the NATO attacks, including grisly close-ups of bodies of Albanian inmates who were allegedly killed in the bombings. The footage covered May 19, 20 and 24 – days immediately before and after the guards’ alleged killing spree.
This prompted Judge Kwon to ask Milosevic why he was insisting on showing the tapes, adding that he failed to understand what they were intended to establish, other than the undisputed fact that NATO bombings took place on these days.
Paponjak’s testimony was interrupted in order for the judges to hear the contempt case of the previous Milosevic defence witness, Kosta Bulatovic, and when it continued it amounted to further playing of the same videotapes of the Dubrava prison bombing.
The witness is expected to continue his testimony on May 9.
Ana Uzelac is IWPR’s programme manager in The Hague.