By Linda Karadaku
Prosecuting war crimes stemming from the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the conflicts that followed still represents a challenge to Kosovo, as well as to all the countries in the region. EULEX, which has an executive mandate to investigate, follow and prosecute war crimes, says the mission does it “without taking into consideration who the authors of those crimes are.”
“Prosecutors and investigators of EULEX are currently investigating a total of 76 war crime cases. Out of them, 51 are in the phase of the preliminary investigations and 25 are officially under investigation,” Blerim Krasniqi, a spokesperson for the mission, told SETimes, adding that EULEX judges have issued 20 verdicts so far.
The highest profile is the so-called Limaj case. Fatmir Limaj, Kosovo’s former minister of transport and telecommunications — and a senior official with Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s Kosovo Democratic Party — is on trial with nine of his fellow fighters for war crimes against Serbs and Albanians at a detention centre in the village of Klecke/Klecka in 1999.
All have declared themselves innocent of the charges that were filed by EULEX Prosecutor Maurizio Salustro. One of the main witnesses in Limaj’s trial, Agim Zogaj, known as the “witness X,” committed suicide in Germany. Limaj is under house arrest.
“The trials of this type, and sentences brought on war crimes trials, are a necessary step to bring restoration within a society, and the start of reconciliation,” Nikola Gaon, a spokesperson for the OSCE mission in Kosovo, tells SETimes.
The Mission published its latest report on war crimes trials in 2010. “War crimes cases are difficult to investigate, prosecute, defend and try. Prioritising war crimes cases has been frequently the focus of public discourse, but it has been a priority in name only,” the report reads.
Gaon underlines that sufficient resources should be allocated, and judges, prosecutors, defence counsel and investigators still lack overall competence in this specialised area of law.
“Additionally, insufficient regional co-operation has hampered the process of trying war crimes cases. It is possible that some persons accused of war crimes have fled Kosovo and can be tried in another jurisdiction,” he said.
Gaon says that in order to broaden this process and try suspects who have fled Kosovo, “prosecutors and investigators outside of Kosovo would need access to witnesses and evidence in Kosovo.” He added “That would require co-operation between officials inside and outside [the country], which is currently insufficient.”
Bekim Blakaj, executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre Kosovo, says domestic courts have prosecuted only 58 war crimes cases. Among them, 23 cases involved a total of 31 Serb defendants, while six cases involved a total of 18 Albanian defendants.
Blakaj draws a distinction between two ongoing trials, the so-called Bllaca 2 case, based on the testimonies of former KLA member Nazim Bllaca, and the Klecka case.
“It is clear that the justice system in Kosovo has failed, especially in chasing the suspects for war crimes and the initiation of the judicial procedures,” Blakaj tells SETimes, underlining that the Centre has proven the murder or disappearance of 13,100 people in Kosovo.
Blakaj says that the war crimes trials are crucial to the families of victims and to society, which needs to learn about these war crimes. “That would be a solid base to prevent the repetition of those crimes in the future,” Blakaj said.
Prosecuting war crimes is going slowly in the rest of the region as well.
In Serbia, 385 people have been prosecuted; there have been 145 indicted and 2,616 victims. Serbia’s Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor was founded on July 1st 2003.
According to the Human Rights Watch’s latest report “domestic war crimes prosecutions have proceeded steadily, although the Serbian War Crimes Chamber has faced increasing criticism for limited progress in domestic war-related criminal proceedings, and for indictments of individuals for war crimes that were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.”
In Croatia, only 109 out of a total of 490 war crimes were fully prosecuted, according to a report presented to parliament by Croatian State Prosecutor Mladen Bajic. He noted that with the passage of time, it becomes more and more difficult to investigate war crimes.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Special Department for War Crimes was established after parliament adopted a series of laws in December 2004. The Special Department for War Crimes is responsible for prosecuting cases committed during the armed conflict of 1992-1995.
Between September 2010 and 2011, the domestic War Crimes Chamber in BiH reached final verdicts in 24 cases, raising the total number of completed cases to 75, according to Human Rights Watch.