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

Serbia: First War Crimes Trial

Political considerations led to Serbia's first Kosovo-related war crimes convictions.
By Bojan Toncic

Concerns over Yugoslavia's relationship with international institutions prompted Belgrade’s much-vaunted conviction of military personnel on war crimes charges last week.


The first in a series of war crimes trials in Serbia’s military courts ended on October 11 with prison terms for four Yugoslav army soldiers convicted of the killing of two Albanian civilians from Kusnin in April 1999 during the Kosovo conflict.


Lieutenant-Colonel Zlatan Mancic, Captain Rade Radojevic and privates Danilo Tesic and Misel Seregi received sentences ranging from three to seven years.


Mancic and Radojevic were originally charged with conspiracy to murder, Tesic and Seregi with murder.


Belgrade analysts claim the manner in which the trial was prosecuted suggested political considerations rather than the pursuit of justice were the principal driving force.


The Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC, believes the prison terms were too lenient and gave the impression the court was "biased and on the side of the perpetrators".


In addition, the military tribunal did not give the identities of the victims, even though, according to the HLC, Red Cross documents clearly name Miftar and Selman Temaj, last seen in Kusnin on April 5, 1999.


Also, during the trial, the court referred repeatedly to the Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in conflicts of an international nature, even though the tribunal defined the war between Serb forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, as an internal conflict.


"By accepting such an approach, the court council, presided over by Colonel Radenko Miladinovic, adopted the stand widely accepted among military, political and legal circles in Serbia that this was a struggle of Serb forces against terrorism and the NATO aggressor," said HLC head Natasha Kandic.


Previously, the authorities had sought prosecutions on murder charges, shying away from accusations of war crimes, which often provoke public outcries in Serbia where people are in denial about their country’s role in the Balkan conflicts.


The change in tack comes in response to political pressure to meet the requirements for membership of the NATO Partnership for Peace programme and the Council of Europe.


A former military supreme court judge told IWPR he thought it was "incredible" that no war crimes trials had been held before now.


"I kept pointing out to my colleagues from the military judiciary that the murder of a civilian in war time cannot be treated as an ordinary murder, but as a war crime or a crime against humanity. It is obvious, however, that it was important for certain people from the former regime, and from the military leadership as well, not to conduct such trials," he said.


Kandic said she’d been informed that around 20 murder cases would now be treated as war crimes trials.


Activists have given this first war crimes trial a cautious welcome, wary that the primary concern of the authorities was to help prepare the ground for Yugoslavia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions rather than a genuine desire to confront the past.


Bojan Toncic is a journalist with the Belgrade daily Danas.