Serbia Steeled for Mass Grave Charges

Prosecutors have promised to charge within months those responsible for the mass killings of Kosovo Albanians.

Serbia Steeled for Mass Grave Charges

Prosecutors have promised to charge within months those responsible for the mass killings of Kosovo Albanians.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

In a sign of an apparent willingness to face up to their responsibility for prosecuting war crimes, the authorities in Belgrade this week promised to charge those responsible for murdering hundreds of Kosovo Albanians in 1999 and then attempting to conceal their corpses in mass graves in Serbia.

The announcement came some four years after the graves were first discovered, and as a further 64 bodies of Kosovo Albanians whose remains were exhumed from a mass grave in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica were handed over to the United Nations mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, for return to their families.

A spokesman for the prosecutor of the Belgrade district court’s War Crimes Council, Bruno Vekaric, confirmed to IWPR on June 3 that the war crimes prosecutor is planning to initiate judicial procedures by the end of this year or the beginning of 2006 against individuals in relation to the mass graves in Serbia. He added his office has already interviewed over 200 potential witnesses.

On May 26, investigative judge Milan Dilparic of the War Crimes Council announced the investigation into the murders would be completed by the end of this year.

IWPR sources close to the Serbian government say the announcement that individuals will be charged shows the authorities are finally overcoming their reluctance in raising the issue of responsibility of those believed to have taken in part in perpetrating these war crimes. "The political decision has finally been made,” a source from the Serbian government told IWPR, but refused to specify whether those to be indicted are working for the police or the army and how senior they are.

A total of 836 bodies of Kosovo Albanians have been exhumed from different mass graves across Serbia. They are assumed to have been murdered by the Serbian security forces in the 1999 armed conflict in Kosovo during which thousands of people were killed or went missing. Nearly 500 bodies have so far been handed over to their families in Kosovo and to UNMIK. The Serbian government says the rest will be returned as soon as they are identified – a process which may still take several months.

Judge Dilparic said that the identity of all the victims still had to be established, along with the place and manner of their execution. He said he expected the continued assistance of UNMIK and the Hague tribunal in the case.

The graves were discovered at three different locations in Serbia in 2001 – a police compound in Batajnica, near Belgrade; another police compound in Petrovo Selo in eastern Serbia; and in the vicinity of the Perucac lake, near Uzice in western Serbia.

The Serbian security services are accused of transporting the corpses in refrigerator trucks and burying them in mass graves in Serbian territory in an attempt to cover up the murders.

The largest number of remains – 709 people – was buried in eight pits at the Batajnica police compound of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, SAJ. More than 350 of the bodies have been identified so far.

Even though two of three mass graves are located within police compounds, the authorities in Belgrade have still not, four years on from the initial discoveries, filed any charges.

As early as May 2001, the deputy chief of the Serbian police anti-organised crime unit, Dragan Karleusa, told a press conference that the bodies were those of victims of “the cleaning-up operation in the field in Kosovo”.

He also said that the order to do the “cleaning-up” was issued by former president Slobodan Milosevic in March 1999 at a meeting with the then Serbian police minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, the heads of Serbian secret services and police chiefs Radomir Markovic and Vlastimir Djordjevic. Markovic’s account of that meeting has been admitted into evidence in the case against Milosevic at the Hague tribunal, although Markovic had attempted to deny its accuracy later on.

Milosevic is noe facing trial at the UN court, while Markovic has been detained in Serbia on an unrelated matter and Djordjevic is on the run from a tribunal indictment.

Since the beginning of this year, the Serbian government has been stepping up its cooperation with the Hague court through a series of voluntary surrenders of indictees. Nevertheless, Belgrade has continued to advocate that where atrocities were committed by Serbs, as many cases as possible should be handed over to the Serbian justice system.

But Serbian leaders – from the assassinated prime minister Zoran Djindjic and his successor Zoran Zivkovic to the current prime minister, Voijslav Kostunica – have shown a marked reluctance to confront the issue of mass graves and bring those responsible to justice.

Observers in Belgrade believe that successive governments have been hampered by the continued presence of Milosevic supporters within the administration, including the security services. Judicial sources have told previous IWPR investigations into the case of the mass graves that Milosevic era police were “covering up and removing the traces leading towards those responsible” [IWPR BCR No 343, 14-Jun-02] mainly to protect themselves from prosecution.

A source from a respected international organisation in Belgrade confirmed to IWPR that the biggest obstacle to the investigation related to the graves continued to be the “wall of silence within the police” itself.

The source says the investigative judges have had a hard task, both doing the job that the police should have done themselves, and in dealing with the political embarrassment the graves have become. “For them, it’s been like walking through a mine field,” he said.

Another issue facing the Serbian judiciary in their investigations of the graves was the difficulty of communicating or meeting witnesses and families of the victims in the territory of Kosovo. There is still distrust between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the aftermath of the brutal war.

"At the beginning, they were reluctant to talk,” said an IWPR source from one of the western embassies in Belgrade. Potential witnesses were suspicious – even of mediators. But involvement of the UN and the tribunal has helped to change the situation. “An increasing number of Albanians are coming forward to testify and help shed some light on the crimes against their loved ones,” he said.

In January, the first war crimes case dealt with by a Serbian civilian court – that of a member of the notorious Serbian special police the “Scorpions” who was found guilty of executing Albanian civilians during the Kosovo war – was overturned by the Serbian Supreme Court, in a ruling that many observers saw as sending the worst possible signal to both the victims and the witnesses in future war crimes trials. [IWPR TU No 389, 14-Jan-05]

The establishment of the War Crimes Council in Belgrade, which is already trying its first case related to Serb massacres of Bosnians and Croats at Vukovar, may have helped to change attitudes within Serbia itself. Well-informed sources have told IWPR that major progress has been made in the case of the mass graves, especially in relation to alleged war crimes committed in the Kosovo villages of Meja and Suva Reka.

Observers in Belgrade say the current mood of the public in Serbia – in favour of war crimes trials in local courts, while the government persuades indictees to surrender to the Hague tribunal – should now make it easier for the authorities here to issue indictments and hold trials in Serbia.

The most recent surveys of public opinion, conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights and polling agency Strategic Marketing, whose results were presented in Belgrade on May 27, show around 60 per cent of the population believe the Serbian justice system is ready to process war crimes trials.

Of those surveyed, more than 70 per cent believed that holding war crimes trials in local courts shows that the Serbian judiciary is capable of dealing with war crimes cases.

The public also overwhelmingly agreed in the survey that such trials demonstrate that there should be no impunity for such crimes and atrocities, although many Serbs still refuse to accept that their side committed any war crimes during the conflicts in former Yugoslavia.

At the Milosevic trial this week, defence witness former assistant minister of the interior, General Obrad Stevanovic, denied any involvement by the Serbian police in the transfer of bodies from Kosovo to graves in Serbia.

Daniel Sunter is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade.

Balkans, Serbia, Kosovo
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