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Questions Raised by Podujevo Trial

Judicial irregularities overshadow sentencing of Serb officer for crimes against Albanian civilians.
By Daniel Sunter

As violence convulsed Kosovo, a Belgrade court on March 17 sentenced a Serbian policeman, convicted of war crimes during fighting in the region in 1999, to a maximum prison term.


The judicial process - which could have helped establish Serbia’s credentials in trying war crimes - was marred, however, by irregularities that raised questions about the country’s readiness to prosecute these kinds of crimes.


Sasa Cvjetan, a 29-year-old member of the former Serbian special police unit Scorpions, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for murdering 14 and badly wounding five Albanian civilians in the Kosovo town of Podujevo in March 1999.


Together with other members of his unit, he opened fire on three extended Albanian families gathered in a courtyard of a house in Podujevo. Eight of those killed in the shooting spree were children.


"This is a monstrous crime and we have decided on the highest penalty,” judge Biljana Sinanovic said after the sentence was handed down. She pronounced Cvjetan guilty of inhumane treatment of civilians and violations of the Geneva conventions.


Although the Serbian criminal code was recently changed to allow for the maximum prison sentence of 40 years, Cvjetan was tried according to the old code, valid at the time he committed the crimes, which provides for a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.


Even after the sentencing Cvjetan maintained that he was innocent, and his family repeated their claims that the whole case was politically motivated. Some observers fear that numerous procedural irregularities committed during the pre-trail investigation and the early days of trial could undermine its validity


The Podujevo trial was unprecedented in its length and it featured exceptionally gruesome testimonies of Albanian survivors of the massacre.


The investigation began in 1999, during the reign of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who is now being tried for war crimes in The Hague. This is also when the first irregularities were committed – Cvjetan claimed that the guilty plea he made at the time was beaten out of him by two investigative officers. He was also questioned by investigative judge without the presence of his lawyer.


The inquiry was halted soon after it began, and it recommenced only in 2001, months after the fall of Milosevic regime. But according to the report on Serbian judiciary that the OSCE complied and published last November, the irregularities continued under the new government.


The trial finally started in October 2002 in the town of Prokuplje in southern Serbia, but it was soon transferred to Belgrade after the local population began harassing the judge, the media and representatives of non-governmental organisations monitoring the case.


In the beginning, all of Cvjetan’s colleagues – Serbian policemen, some of them former members of the Scorpions unit – consistently claimed they did not know who committed the crime and showed little compassion for the Albanian victims. His co-accused, another member of the Scorpions unit, Dejan Demirovic, denied the charges through his lawyer. Demirovic lives in Canada, whose authorities declined to extradite him due to the lack of relevant treaty between the two countries.


The breakthrough, however, came in December, when Cvjetan’s colleague and a former Scorpions member, Goran Stoparic, confirmed that he saw Cvjetan at the scene of the crime. Stoparic - who said he was systematically threatened by the commander of the Scorpions unit and warned not to testify - said that he saw Cvjetan and five other members of this unit with the Albanians just before they were killed.


Stoparic said that he had been standing in an alley that led to a yard where the police had rounded up some two dozen people when he heard sudden bursts of automatic fire. He said that when he tried to enter the yard to see what is happening, he ran into Cvjetan and three other police officers that were hurriedly reloading their weapons.


“After just one minute, which is how long the shooting lasted, [the accused] came out of the back yard in which the massacre took place, changing the magazines on their automatic rifles,” an obviously shaken Stoparic told the court.


His story confirmed the harrowing testimony of the four children that survived the massacre and came to Belgrade last summer to testify. One of them identified Cvjetan as one of the culprits and testified in a closed session.


The story of one of the survivors, a 13-year old girl called Saranda, was told to the IWPR by the observers who were allowed to be present at this session. It’s a harrowing account of how she and her family, thinking it would be safest to stick together, moved into her uncle’s house. Soon, though, unknown men in camouflage uniforms entered the courtyard and, after some verbal harassment, cut the three families down with bursts of automatic fire.


Badly wounded, Saranda survived the shooting spree and was later transferred to Pristina hospital by a doctor who worked for the same Serbian police unit that killed her family.


Her testimony was made possible by the work of Humanitarian Law Fund, a prominent Serbian NGO whose director Natasa Kandic represented the girl at the trial. Kandic praised the court for its integrity and said that the panel of judges managed to ensure justice both for the defendant and for the victims.


"This is a big step forward, the trial was held in difficult conditions, but thanks to the integrity of the panel of judges we witnessed a handing down of a sentence based on evidence...What left the strongest impression on me was the reading of the names of all victims, and the fact that the presiding judge said that the murder of children must be punished with the maximum sentence,” she said.


Echoing these sentiments, Judge Sinanovic said, “What can be worse than shooting children?"


The Podujevo trial and the maximum sentence delivered could have helped Serbia establish its credentials in conducting war trials – something that the Hague tribunal would like to see happening in the next four years.


But some observers fear that the procedural mistakes that were made during the trial undermined it. “The trial proceedings were violated to the detriment of the accused," a legal expert from a prominent international organisation, who declined to be named, told IWPR, adding that the entire case could end up being retried.


The defence lawyers for Cvjetan have said that they would appeal to the Supreme Court of Serbia against the court decision.


Declining to comment on the Belgrade trial because her team had not monitored it from beginning to end, the tribunal outreach coordinator for Serbia and Montenegro, Alexandra Milenov, would only say that the Hague court was “satisfied with the fact that such crimes are being investigated and prosecuted”.


Daniel Sunter is an IWPR assistant editor in Belgrade.


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