PRISTINA, Serbia, Nov 6, 1999 -- (Agence France Presse) As UN lawyers hurry to patch together a new legal system for war-torn Kosovo, international police here face an uphill struggle to contain petty crime in the face of a stalled judicial system and a residual distrust of the police.
"The biggest problem is that the judicial system is still not working," said Peter Steininger, deputy commissioner for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) police.
Of some 400 suspects arrested since NATO peacekeepers arrived here in July, around 90 percent have been released without trial as the courts are simply not working, he said.
"Not a single case has come before court," said Steininger. "Imagine how disappointing that is to the police doing good work here."
UNMIK police commissioner Sven Frederikson said only suspects in serious cases of murder and manslaughter are detained, appearing in court only to have their custody extended while teams of lawyers sift through Kosovo's laws to come up with a workable code.
The rest are investigated then released, although positively identifying suspects in an area where Serb forces systematically destroyed citizenship records makes the work labor intensive for the short-staffed UNMIK force.
Steininger said that if people start thinking the police are a "toothless tiger" then the 1,800 police officers from some 40 countries could face even more difficulties.
"Most still believe in the police here, but I think the real bad guys have realized" that the legal system cannot hold any but the most serious offenders.
Some criminals know that if they are jailed for car theft "they have a free meal for a few days and then carry on."
Police also have to win the trust of the majority of ethnic Albanians, who saw Serbian police as an instrument of oppression and are reluctant to give information on the frequent ethnic attacks in the Serbian province.
The problem is compounded by the lack of police officers here, the obscurity of the legal system -- Belgrade scrapped Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 and introduced numerous changes -- and a shortage of experienced judges.
UN special representative Bernard Kouchner has asked for 4,700 police and had 3,100 authorized, UNMIK spokeswoman Susan Manuel said. But Steininger said that faced with the danger and tough conditions of the job, recruitment has tapered off in recent weeks.
"Around 25 new officers have come, but we have officers going home almost every day," tired of the difficulties of living with constant power and water cuts in a country awash with arms, working through translators in an alien environment.
Police have also to train local recruits to take over patrol duties and the cadets are usually "more of a burden than a help in the beginning," Steininger said.
This week a mob attacked an UNMIK police patrol training an ethnic Albanian recruit when they responded to a distress call in the Serb area of the divided northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, beating both officers up.
The UN is to introduce a list of around 25 basic regulations within a week to allow police to enforce more order to Pristina's chaotic streets, including banning parking on pavements and playing boom boxes at full volume, Frederikson said.
Police currently enforce the Yugoslav law in place before NATO's 11-week air campaign in March which drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo, but stripped of discriminatory articles introduced after 1989.
But they say the major problems can only be resolved by trying suspects and re-introducing an effective penal system.
With only around 50 judges working in the courts and earning around 300 German marks (160 dollars) a month, however, the best that can be done for the moment is to remand suspects of serious crime in custody.
Daan Everts, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) here, said judges earning so little could not be expected to handle possible corruption cases involving huge sums of money.
He said he wanted international judges to come in and work side by side with local magistrates, but said the UN viewed such a move as too "colonialist."
Xhavit Krasniqi, an ethnic Albanian former judge working as a lawyer, said he was one of 500 judges who lost their jobs in 1989, either thrown out or refusing to compromise with what they saw as racist laws.
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