Belgrade's declared readiness to prosecute its own war criminals is looking increasingly questionable.


Belgrade's declared readiness to prosecute its own war criminals is looking increasingly questionable.

Serbia: War Crimes on the Back Burner

A court in southern Serbia has finally brought long-delayed war crimes charges against two former police officers for alleged crimes in Kosovo.

The move has been heralded by the government as evidence the country is willing and able to try those accused of such crimes at home. But long delays, alleged obstruction and the lack of other similar prosecutions suggests otherwise.

On April 22, the Prokuplje district court indicted two former Novi Sad policemen, Sasa Cvjetan and Dejan Demirovic, on charges of murdering 19 Albanian civilians in Podujevo, Kosovo on March 28, 1999.

Former Prokuplje court president Branislav Niketic had blocked the investigation, which began in 1999. His successor, Dragan Tacic, renewed the inquiry in July 2001 and told IWPR last September that evidence against the two suspects was very strong.

At the time, Serbia's justice minister Vladan Batic said proceedings would start immediately, but it took a further seven months for indictments to be issued. Tacic said the investigations took longer than expected, while Batic claimed his remarks had been misinterpreted.

But Ljubomir Jovanovic, investigative judge at the Prokuplje court, claims the case has been mishandled from the outset. The files landed on his desk on January 15, 2002, prompting to kick-start the investigation once again. "The first thing I concluded when I saw this case was that it had been neglected," Jovanovic said.

Jovanovic said it had become increasingly difficult to summon witnesses with the result that almost none had been heard between September 2001 and January 2002.

"The investigation began to yield results only when I personally contacted the Serbian supreme court and the justice and police ministries. They insisted that the interior ministry finally summon witnesses," Jovanovic said.

The war crimes indictments against Cvjetan and Demirovic are so far the only ones in Serbia to cover Serbian actions in Kosovo, even though the Prokuplje court has jurisdiction for the Podujevo region in Kosovo where several hundred people disappeared or were killed during 1998 and 1999.

Yet there is evidence of war crimes throughout Serbia. In May 2001, mass graves containing the remains of several hundred Kosovo Albanians were unearthed, notably in Batajnica, a Belgrade suburb. However, no indictments or arrests have followed in the wake of that discovery.

The flow of information released by the government concerning the mass grave find came just before the controversial extradition of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague, but it dried up afterwards.

Jovanovic admits further indictments are a long way off. "We don't have any new evidence of any significance," he said. " Several investigations are being conducted, but it is early to talk about them."

In April 2001, the Yugoslav Army started proceedings against 245 soldiers in connection with alleged crimes in Kosovo. To date not one war crimes charge has been brought. Likewise, civil court proceedings against nine army reservists, which started in July 2001, have failed to produce any indictments.

Eighteen months after Serbia's new authorities came to power, the country has yet to face up to past crimes. Serbians still consider it unpatriotic to admit to atrocities. Hollow political rhetoric and the constant manipulation of public opinion have only reinforced this reluctance. And so the courts remain empty of war criminals.

Meanwhile, the judiciary, politicians and civil servants pass the buck.

Belgrade district prosecutor Rade Terzic told the Serbian weekly NIN on April 11 that it is not the judiciary that's responsible for the inaction of the court, but the interior ministry.

"For the prosecution to initiate the proceedings and start prosecuting the perpetrators of war crimes, they need concrete, good and quality evidence. Unfortunately, we have not had such a good material," he said.

The interior ministry rejects these accusations. In a written statement handed to IWPR, Nenad Minic, the Serbian deputy minister of interior, said the ministry undertakes all necessary measures to find the perpetrators of war crimes in Kosovo. He said it was unfortunate that there had been few results.

Batic, nevertheless, remains optimistic that more indictments will follow.

"The former authorities destroyed the majority of evidence. However, the investigation into mass graves discovered last year in Batajnica and in refrigerator trucks pulled out of the Danube, continues. As far as I know, the court proceedings will soon be initiated against those suspected of participation in these killings," he told IWPR. But it has to be said that the minister said much the same six months ago.

Independent observers believe the necessary political will to bring war criminals to justice is lacking, and that without it little can be expected of the police and judiciary.

"There are laws, there are judges and the police have made several mass grave discoveries," said Biljana Kovacevic Vuco, president of the Yugoslav Committee of Lawyers for the Protection of Human Rights. "But politicians don't have the courage to face potential voters openly with the information about the crimes committed by Serbs. Every story about this topic ends with accusations about whether one is a patriot or not."

That to date only two former police officers are facing trial for crimes in Kosovo is testament to the Serbian authorities' passivity on the whole war crimes issue and, contrary to the government's claims, merely emphasises the reluctance to bring the perpetrators of those crimes to justice.

Marina Grihovic is a freelance journalist in Belgrade and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network.

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