Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Vlastimir Djordjevic in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: IWPR)
At his appeal hearing this week, former Serbian police chief Vlastimir Djordjevic offered profuse apologies to the families of those who were killed by Serb forces during the late 1990s conflict in Kosovo.
“I’m deeply sorry for all victims in Kosovo and the suffering of their families. I apologise unreservedly to the families of all Kosovo Albanians who lost their lives and to those who were displaced. I truly sympathise with their pain and I hope the future of the region will be one of peace,” Djordjevic told the appeals bench.
During the Kosovo conflict, Djordjevic was deputy interior minister and chief of public security and as such in command of Serbia’s police force.
In February 2011, Djordjevic was found responsible for the murder of 724 ethnic Albanian civilians and for the deportation and forcible transfer of at least 200,000 people in 1999. He was also convicted of persecution for acts of deportation, forcible transfer, and destruction of property culturally or religiously significant to Kosovo Albanians.
He was sentenced to 27 years in prison, with credit for time served since 2007. (For more on the original judgement, see Djordjevic Handed 27-Year Sentence.)
In his address to the appeals judges on May 13, Djordjevic acknowledged that he did “not oppose the cover up” carried out by Serbian police to conceal the murder of Kosovo Albanians in 1999.
“I did not take steps to find and prosecute the perpetrators as I should have. I deeply regret this and the fact that I didn’t resign immediately. I didn’t have the strength and power to stand up to the [interior] minister,” Djordjevic said.
At the time, he said, he felt “marginalised”. “I suppose that made me feel like I could turn away,” he added.
Djordjevic said the reason he did not plead guilty in his original trial was because “the prosecution says I am responsible for absolutely everything that happened in Kosovo”.
“I did play a role, and for that I accept I must be punished, but the trial judgement distorts the reality of my role. I beg you to review my role and actions objectively. The judgement places too much blame on me,” he said.
Djordjevic’s lawyers reiterated this point in their submissions to the bench.
“We say that Djordjevic’s liability for crimes in Kosovo has been overstated and his sentence is too harsh,” defence lawyer Russell Hopkins said.
Hopkins spent a good deal of time focusing on his client’s role in a specific massacre carried out by the Scorpions, a Serbian paramilitary unit. On March 28, 1999, a group of 19 Albanian women and children from the village of Podujevo were lined up and shot. Only five of them survived.
The original judgement found that at the time of the Podujevo killings, the Scorpions had been incorporated into Serbia’s police force, and that it was Djordjevic who “personally” integrated them.
Furthermore, the verdict stated that Djordjevic was informed of the massacre “almost immediately”, and “the unit was withdrawn from Kosovo but no effective investigation followed”.
“The accused was aware of the lack of investigation but nonetheless authorised the redeployment of members of the same unit back to Kosovo a few days later,” the verdict continued.
Defence lawyer Hopkins challenged this version of events and also questioned the judgement’s characterisation of the Scorpions as a “widely known and notorious” force.
Hopkins contended that the Scorpions did not become well known until 2005, when a video surfaced of its members murdering six Bosnian Muslim prisoners, who were captured in July 1995 after the fall of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and transported to the village of Trnovo.
“There is no clear basis that such things were widely known in 1999,” Hopkins said, adding that there was no evidence that at the time, his client was aware of the Scorpions’ earlier crimes in Bosnia and Croatia.
Hopkins also questioned the trial chamber’s assertion that Djordjevic should have “at least emphasised the need to screen” the Scorpions before integrating them into the police force, because two members had prior convictions in Croatia. Hopkins said that his client did conduct background checks in Serbia, but that it would not have been easy to find out about convictions in other countries.
Furthermore, Hopkins said, “the trial chamber persists in the mantra that Scorpions were paramilitaries”.
“The Scorpions were not [acting] alongside police and military structures – they were in it. They weren’t ‘para-’ anything,” Hopkins said.
He added that after the Podujevo massacre, Serbian medical teams arrived and tried to save lives. Djordjevic found out about the killings right away, and two days later, an investigative judge arrived at the scene, Hopkins said.
“There is no cover-up. Instead, all of the bodies were buried properly in local cemetery,” Hopkins said.
He said that if any of the Scorpion members who participated had been deployed back to Kosovo, that was not “deliberate”. Furthermore, he said, it “seems undisputed” that the main perpetrator, Sasa Cvjetin, was not redeployed. In fact, Cvjetin was later sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by a Belgrade court.
Defence lawyers argued that Djordjevic should not have been convicted under the two modes of “joint criminal enterprise” and “aiding and abetting”. Here they cited a finding recently applied in the case of former Yugoslav army chief Momcilo Perisic.
In March, appeals judges overturned Perisic’s conviction for aiding and abetting crimes in Bosnia because they found that based in Belgrade, he had been “remote” from events on the ground, and that it had not been proven that his aid for the Bosnian Serb army was specifically directed towards the commission of crimes. (See Yugoslav Army Chief Acquitted on Appeal and, on the broader issues, Do Overturned Convictions Undermine Hague Tribunal?)
The defence argued that Djordjevic, too, was remote from the crimes set out in the indictment, as he was mainly based in Belgrade and only visited Kosovo a few times during the conflict.
“We suggest that much of Djordjevic’s conduct in all of circumstances could have been general assistance for lawful activities. The immediate removal of the Scorpions after Podujevo suggests that his conduct was not directed to such crimes,” said defence lawyer Mary O’Leary.
The prosecution rejected all the defence’s arguments.
“The chamber reasonably found that Djordjevic was one of the most crucial members of JCE [joint criminal enterprise] that unleashed an 88-day campaign of terror and extreme violence against Kosovo Albanians – a campaign that left at least 724 people dead, that displaced hundreds of thousands of people and that reduced many Kosovo Albanian villages to smoking ruins,” prosecuting lawyer Kyle Wood said.
Djordjevic dispatched the “notoriously criminal paramilitary” Scorpions to Kosovo and “gave them guns”, the lawyer said. “He played a leading role in clandestine operations to hide bodies of hundreds of murdered Kosovo Albanian civilians, at facilities he controlled, in operations that he directed. He made sure that no one would ever be punished for crimes he knew his subordinates were committing in Kosovo.”
Wood further stated that Djordjevic’s lawyers had “generally rehashed a failed trial argument” by apportioning blame to others in the chain of command and portraying the accused as “powerless” and lacking in authority.
“This is not a chance for him to run trial arguments again for a second go. He has a burden to meet and he failed to meet it,” Wood said.
As for the “specific direction” argument regarding the aiding and abetting of crimes, the prosecution argued that not only was this finding a “vague and unworkable legal standard” which creates an “accountability gap”, but that it did not apply to Djordjevic anyway.
Unlike Perisic, who was providing assistance to a separate army in a different country, Djordjevic “exercised effective control over police in Kosovo”, then part of Serbia.
“He had detailed knowledge of events on the ground and was closely involved in operational decisions in Kosovo,” the prosecution argued.
The prosecution itself is appealing against the 2011 trial judgement against Djordjevic. It is arguing against the finding that sexual assaults committed against Albanian women did not qualify as persecutory acts. The trial chamber found that in order for persecution to be proven, “intent to discriminate” must be established, and this was not so in the case of the sexual assaults.
Arguing against this, prosecuting lawyer Daniela Kravetz said, “The crime of sexual assault should not be treated differently from other violent acts simply because of the sexual component. That’s what the trial chamber did.”
The appeals judgement will be delivered in due course.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.
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