Perspectives | War Crimes

Serbia and Kosovo — rejecting or accepting guilt

By - 17.01.2023

Are trials for the crimes perpetrated almost 25 years ago starting to lose their purpose?

Where do Serbia and Kosovo stand when it comes to recognition of war crimes? This question arises whenever someone mentions “dealing with the past,” which for some is only unnecessary lingering in the horrors of war and for others a precondition for resolving issues in relations between the two countries.

Trials in Serbia

In the High Court in Belgrade, Nezir Mehmetaj is currently standing trial, charged with involvement in the murder, abduction and expulsion of non-Albanian civilians and arson of their homes near the village of Rudicë, Kosovo, in 1999.

The trial began in April 2021, a few months after the indictment was confirmed against Mehmetaj, whom the War Crime Prosecutor’s Office (WCPO) in Serbia claims is a former member of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Mehmetaj claims he wasn’t in Kosovo during the war nor when the alleged crimes took place. He has been held in custody in Belgrade since January 2020.

Mehmetaj’s indictment is one of the roughly 20 issued by the WCPO since the beginning of 2020, of which around 10 are transferred cases, mostly from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

According to data by the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) dating from May 2022, since the WCPO began work in 2003 until the end of 2021, they have filed indictments in 88 war crimes cases and a final verdict has been reached in 58 cases. Among them, at least 10 are related to crimes committed in Kosovo.

In Belgrade, there are around 30 ongoing war crime trials, a number of which are related to crimes in Kosovo. A first-instance judgment has already been passed in some, such as in the case of Petrit Dula who after a few months of proceedings, was sentenced to two years in prison after it was found that he was involved in the 1999 beating of civilian Gazmend Kryeziu in Kosovo.

Another trial related to crimes in Kosovo in 1999 is still pending more than a decade after an indictment was first brought. A retrial was started seven years ago in the case of 11 members of the Yugoslav Military Territorial Detachment of Peć who are charged with murdering over 140 Albanian civilians in the villages of Qyshk, Lybeniq, Pavlan and Zahaq.

Meanwhile one of the defendants has died and the course of the trials gives little hope that the process will finish soon. According to the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) in Serbia, four main hearings were scheduled for 2022, but only two were held while in 2021, out of the seven planned main hearings, not a single one was conducted.

Higher ranking members of the Yugoslav Army regularly escape being charged with war crimes.

The notion that Serbia does not show willingness to accept accountability or culpability for crimes committed in Kosovo is supported by a fact that HLC has been pointing out for years: lower and mid-ranking members of the Yugoslav Army are regularly charged with war crimes, but not its higher ranking ones.

The president of the judicial council spoke about this when the first ruling was made in the Qyshka case in 2014. “Based on the rules of military hierarchy,” she said, “it should be concluded that another person was there aside from Toplica Miladinović (the first defendant), but we only addressed what the indictees we have here were charged with.”

Moreover, the Serbian Interior Ministry’s responsibility for murders has never been determined even though a number of witnesses confirm that Serbian Interior Ministry forces were also present in the mentioned villages around the time civilians were killed.

“In spite of this evidence, the WCPO has failed to investigate the allegations of the Interior Ministry’s role in these crimes; by which it has violated its legal obligation to conduct an efficient and effective investigation where it would adequately look into all crime allegations,” HLC notes in its 2021 report on war crimes.

Insisting on ‘our’ victims and ‘their’ crimes

The excessively long process of prosecuting the cases in Belgrade — among which is a case, running now for six years, about the murder of 1,313 Bosniaks in the Bosnian village of Kravica in 1995 — has made it such that broad public interest practically no longer exists.

There’s rarely any furor and there’s an increase in public interest usually only when there’s an indictment related to victims on “our side.” So, though Serbian media close to the government generally shows no interest in the wartime past of former Yugoslavia, a few months ago nearly all of them reported on four Croatian pilots who were charged with war crimes against Serb civilians in Operation Storm.

These media outlets tend to cover the war crimes of the 1990s selectively, bringing only one side’s victims to attention and hushing up about the victims of the other side. This was illustrated in a news report from Radio Television Serbia (RTS) in March 2021 that stated that Veljko Radenović, a Serbian military commander in Rahovec in 1998, was posthumously awarded the Serbian Order of Merit for Defense and Security and that a monument to him was to be unveiled by President Aleksandar Vučić on the 23rd anniversary of the NATO bombing of Serbia.

According to RTS, Lieutenant Colonel Radenović was instrumental in saving “dozens of civilians from KLA terrorists.” However, they didn’t mention that in Rahovec and its surroundings Serbian police abducted, tortured and murdered civilians as well.

RTS failed to note that, as determined by HLC, while five Serbs were killed in Rahovec in 1998 and that the fate of 36 Serb civilians abducted by the KLA are still unknown, the Serbian police killed at least 91 Albanians during clashes with the KLA.

Trials in Kosovo

From January to June 2022, a total of 14 war crime cases were heard by Kosovo courts, the majority of which have been lasting for years. This comes from data from HLC Kosovo, which states that for some of the cases that have been returned for retrial, no main hearings were heard in the first half of 2022. As is the case in Serbia, there seems to be a lack of public interest in these trials, and the extended delays make their point questionable.

Additionally, there is a lack of cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo in the prosecution of war crimes, as suggested by HLC Kosovo, which states that “the lack of legal cooperation and information exchange between Kosovo and Serbia brings about inefficacies in terms of war crime-related indictments.” A paradigmatic fact is that Kosovo issued only one war crime indictment in 2021 and only one person was indicted, a Serb.

(Dis)interest in the Kosovo Specialist Chambers

War crimes trials received their most public attention in the years after the Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) brought their first indictments. Out of the four trials that are currently ongoing in this Hague-based court, the spotlight is on the one against former Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi and three former KLA members: Kadri Veseli, Jakup Krasniqi and Rexhep Selimi. With the corresponding pre-trial proceedings underway, the defendants are indicted on charges of the murder or involvement in the persecution of hundreds of Roma, Albanians, Serbs and Ashkalis who were believed to oppose the KLA.

A survey found that around 40% of respondents said that they are “not informed” on the KSC “at all."

A report from Kosovo NGO Integra voiced a common critique of the KSC. “Alleged crimes deserve to be criminally investigated and prosecuted in order for justice to be served to the victims,” the report states. “However, KSC’s design is unsuccessful in one important respect — KSC only handles the crimes allegedly committed by one party to the conflict. Its limited mandate to exclusively prosecute the KLA-related crimes proves to be the main obstacle to KSC being widely accepted by Kosovo society.”

In 2020, Integra conducted a survey where around 40% of respondents said that they are “not informed” on the KSC “at all.” The organization identified an enduring “limited understanding” of KSC’s mandate, adding that Kosovar Albanians are now less convinced than before that this court can bring justice, while Kosovo Serbs have grown to trust it more.

“This could be related to the influence of ethno-nationalist discourse around the formation of KSC in 2019 and 2020, with the majority of Kosovar Albanians believing that KSC’s mandate is unfair, while many Kosovo Serbs and other non-majority community members consider it to be fair,” Integra’s report states.

Nevertheless, the first verdict of the KSC attracted nationwide attention in Kosovo and Serbia. On December 16 of last year, KSC sentenced Salih Mustafa, the former commander of the Security and Information Agency unit of KLA, to 26 years in prison for taking part in the torture, arbitrary detention and murder of civilians in 1999.

Certainly the media will focus more on the work of the KSC when Thaçi’s trial begins. Until then, media outlets will continue to publicize sporadic statements from politicians, which bring about indignation on one side and delight on the other.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama recently recalled the work of the court in front of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly when he demanded that the KSC’s indictments be withdrawn and before putting forward a resolution against Dick Marty’s report on organ trafficking. Rama stated that former members of the KLA led a “clean and respectable war,” and added that the accusations against the KLA leaders is “a figment of human imagination.”

Today, almost 25 years after the Kosovo War ended, this tendency of not accepting the guilt of “our side” brings to mind a phenomenon highlighted by historian Aleida Assmann. “Memory is always dealt with only by those individuals and groups that belong to different generations and strata of society,” she writes in her book titled “The Long Shadow of the Past.”

This belief that only “our” victims exist brings to mind what Assmann calls “memory constructions,” to which the historian says we must pose the question: Can you deal with historical truth or are you closing yourself off from it? Do you exclusively stand in honor or do you solely circle around the role of victim?

Answers to these questions could also serve as an answer to my initial one: Where do Serbia and Kosovo stand when it comes to their mutual recognition of war crimes?

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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