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

REGIONAL REPORT: Sluggish' Kosovo Trials

Kosovo lawyers believe UN-run courts should speed up the trials of war crimes suspects.
By Avni Zogiani

A senior Kosovan judge has criticised the UN-run judicial system for doing too little to bring war crimes suspects to trial in the province.


"War crime cases have been very neglected by the judicial system of Kosovo," said Besim Kelmendi, a judge serving in Pristina's district court.


So far, 23 Serbs have been indicted for war crimes committed during the 1999 conflict - just three have been convicted, sentenced to combined prison terms of 56 years.


Unlike crimes committed during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, no procedure has been laid down for the extradition of war crimes suspects to The Hague.


A request by the UN mission in Kosovo for a local tribunal branch was turned down on the grounds of cost. It was felt that there was no reason district courts with international representation could not do the job.


But this has led to problems. Locals say the process of bringing suspects to trial is being slowed by the need of international lawyers to fully acquaint themselves with the local legal operating procedures.


Unlike similar trials at The Hague, the Kosovo cases are being tried under national rather international law.


Local lawyers say international judges are not fully conversant with the penal code of the former Yugoslavia - which still pertains in Kosovo - resulting in problems over the interpretation of legal terminology, such as the term 'war crime'.


Under the old Yugoslav penal code it does not exist - the closest charge being 'cimes against humanity'. Internationals and locals have agreed on a compromise of 'crimes committed during war'. This includes civilian killings, rape and other atrocities.


But there is a more important problem. International judges say lack of material evidence is holding up cases, but Kelmendi argues that it is next to impossible to collect as the perpetrators of crimes destroyed much of it. Significantly, this has prolonged the trial of Zoran Stanojevic - currently the only indictee in the notorious Racak case


So far the Pristina district court has held 12 separate hearings over the nine months the defendant, charged with murder and battery, has been held in custody - a process which has included the re-hearing of witnesses' testimony as well as a reconstruction of events in Racak.


This has further aggrieved Kosovan lawyers as cover-up stories concerning the disposal of civilian corpses have been appearing in Serb newspapers over the last few weeks.


Police in Belgrade are now preparing indictments against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and his interior minister at the time of the Kosovo war ,Vlajko Stojiljkovic. They are likely to be charged with committing and concealing crimes during the conflict.


If Serbian police are pressing charges against their former president, then Kosovars say their legal system should be more active in pursuing the cases of individuals alleged to have committed atrocities.


Patrice de Charette, a French judge, acknowledges that the Kosovo courts could have done more, but she stresses that collaboration between international and local lawyers only began in February 2000.


De Charette presided last year over the trials in Gjilan of three Serbs - the only ones to have been convicted so far. Momcilo Trajokovic and Milos Jokic were both sentenced to 20 years imprisonment while Bozidar Stanojevic was handed a jail term of 16 years. They were found guilty of offences ranging from murder, rape to unprovoked attacks on Albanian villagers.


Despite the trial hold-ups, Tome Gashi, victim's representative in the Racak case, says there are substantial benefits to be had from integrating international experience with Kosovan penal code


The former UN chief administrator in Kosovo Bernard Kouchner restored the old of federal Yugoslav code in 1999 - ten years after Slobodan Milosevic suspended it as part of his move to strip Kosovo of its autonomous status.


For a decade, the courts were, says Gashi, 'politicised' in that they were used for the subjugation of the area's Albanian majority. The participation of UN-appointed judges is essential, he believes, as a means of rekindling the public's trust in the judicial system.


Gashi says that relations between Serbian and Albanian communities might even improve if justice is seen to be done. If people accept the judgements of the courts, there will be much less risk of revenge killings, says the joint head of the Kosovo justice department, Nekibe Kelmendi.


Yet even if these difficulties in the system can be resolved, a further difficulty remains: some suspects are escaping before they can be brought to trial. In Mitrovica, 25 inmates - half of those detained on suspicion of having committed war crimes - have managed to escape. One Albanian detained on war crimes charges has also escaped from the same prison.


Avni Zogiani is a journalist with the Kosovan daily Koha Ditore.