Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Regional Report: Kosovo Acquittal Angers Serbs and Albanians

Trial of Serb police officer in Kosovo underscores difficulties of local war crimes prosecutions.
By Zoran Culafic

When a court in Kosovo acquitted former Serb police chief Momcilo Trajkovic of war crimes charges late last month, the decision was hailed by the United Nations administration – but not by local people in the protectorate.

The court ruling on May 30 overturned Trajkovic’s earlier conviction for war crimes, but found him guilty of lesser charges of attempted murder and illegal possession of weapons.

The UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, said a serious miscarriage of justice had been righted, but both Albanians and Serbs were left angry, for different reasons.

Many Kosovo Albanians, who may have lost family members in the Serbian campaign of spring 1999 and want to hold someone accountable, still believe Trajkovic is guilty. by contrast, many Serbs claim Trajkovic is a victim of circumstance and is wholly innocent.

Trajkovic was the chief of police in Kamenice during the war in Kosovo. He was first indicted in September 1999 after a search of his house yielded a cache of weapons. He was charged with illegal possession and attempted murder.

An Albanian prosecutor subsequently filed war crimes charges, alleging that on 14 separate dates between April and May 1999 he ordered the killing, maltreatment, expulsion and detention of Albanian civilians. The indictment further alleged that he compiled execution lists of Albanians known to be working in local politics or with international agencies.

His first trial began on in November 2000 and lasted nearly four months. In March 2001, a panel consisting of four Albanians and one international judge found Trajkovic guilty of all charges and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

The trial attracted criticism from international human rights groups because it no international prosecutor was involved, and because judges did not allow Trajkovic to call certain witnesses in his defence.

Trajkovic appealed against the verdict, and in July 2001 Kosovo’s supreme court ruled that he should be granted a re-trial. This time, an international prosecutor took the lead and the judicial panel consisted of one Albanian and two international judges.

In July 2002, Trajkovic was allowed out on bail, but by then he had spent nearly three years in prison.

His re-trial began in May this year in front of a judicial panel with a majority of international judges. It ended with a sentence of three years and four months imprisonment - roughly equivalent to the amount of time the former police chief had already spent in custody.

Not surprisingly, Kosovo’s Albanians were infuriated.

“How could one be satisfied, knowing that 15,000 people were killed here, the majority of them Albanians, as well as a certain number of Serbs, Roma, Turks and others, and that to date no one has been held accountable for this?” asked Bedxet Shala of the Council for Human Rights and Freedom in Pristina.

As for the lesser charges, Shala told IWPR that they were laughable. “Almost everyone possesses weapons today in Kosovo,” he said.

Many Serbs who might otherwise have been pleased with the acquittal also expressed frustration.

Serbia’s liaison office with the province, the Kosovo Coordination Centre, immediately announced that it planned to back another appeal, saying Trajkovic was not even guilty of the lesser charges.

“The verdict was issued just to cover the period Trajkovic has spent in jail,” the centre said in a written statement.

The case underscores the difficulty of pursuing war crimes in a province where the courts have appeared to be keener on retribution than justice.

The Kosovo judiciary, which consisted almost entirely of Albanians with token Serb and minority judges and some international oversight, began prosecuting war crimes in November 1999. As of July 2002 it had issued 17 indictments, four of which included charges of genocide.

In the initial trials all accused, most of whom were Serbs, were found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms. In the appeal processes, almost all of them were acquitted, or else convicted of less serious minor offenses.

According to an OSCE report that was critical of these early proceedings, prosecutors did not have a firm grasp of the criminal charges they were bringing and failed to provide appropriate evidence to back them up.

For example, in the case of Tomislav Vukovic, who was convicted of genocide in June 2000 along with several other Kosovo Serbs, the OSCE pointed out that the prosecutor did not provide any specific dates for his alleged crimes. Vukovic and several other indictees subsequently escaped from prison, and the judicial process against them was never pursued.

The OSCE report also said that during the first two years that Kosovo courts attempted to try war crimes suspects, little effort was made by local courts or the UN administration to help defendants obtain the testimony of Serbian witnesses. At the same time, the report alleged that Albanians accused of crimes were routinely acquitted.

After this report and numerous complaints from Belgrade, UNMIK increased its oversight of the judicial process and ordered more international judges to be included in war crimes trials.

“The Albanian judges were acting in an extreme nationalist, impassioned manner towards Serbs and other non-Albanians,” said Vladimir Bozovic, a lawyer with the Belgrade Coordination Center. “Serbs were being found guilty on the basis of very little evidence, and sentenced for the most serious of crimes.”

In a further effort to address the concerns that minorities in Kosovo were not getting fair trials, UNMIK passed a regulation in December 2000 allowing prosecution and defence lawyers to petition for international judges and prosecutors or a change of venues.

“After that regulation came out, we can say that we certainly saw huge improvements. And most war crime verdicts were reversed or acquitted,” Bozovic told IWPR.

But UNMIK’s decision infuriated many Albanians, who resent the presence of international judges.

“These acquittals offer no hope that crimes will be addressed,” said Shala. “The international judges have a huge responsibility and I don’t think they are doing their job as they should.”

In many of the acquittals, he said, there was evidence to suggest that those accused had committed war crimes.

Shala said he feared that the international judges, with their stringent standards, were slowing down the process of reconciliation in Kosovo. And he said he was not just unhappy about cases where Serbs were in the dock.

“The same applies to crimes committed against Serbs and other minorities after the war,” he said.

Zoran Culafic is an IWPR contributor in Pristina.