Serbs tried for killing but Kosovo courts struggle

PRISTINA, Apr 26, 2000 -- (Reuters) Three Kosovo Serbs went on trial on Tuesday for killing an ethnic Albanian in a clash halted by NATO troops.

Miroljub Momcilovic and his sons Jugoslav and Boban were arrested for the killing of one of six ethnic Albanians who burst into their home in the southeastern town of Gnjilane last year.

The facts are in dispute and the outcome uncertain, but in the confused judicial situation of postwar Kosovo it is seen an achievement that they have been brought to trial at all.

Hundreds of people have been arrested for ethnically tinged murder, robbery, intimidation and possessing illegal war weaponry, but only 28 trials have been completed since UN authorities swore in 276 new judges and prosecutors in January, UN sources said.

In Mitrovica, Kosovo's worst ethnic tinder box, divided into Serb-and Albanian-run sectors, the trials of scores of prisoners have been put on hold to avoid igniting local rage.

Twenty-seven Serb prisoners in Mitrovica have been on hunger strike since April 10.

They have written to UN administrator Bernard Kouchner demanding to be jailed together and tried without further delay.

Serbian Assistant Justice Minister Zoran Balinovac visited 11 Serbs jailed in the Kosovo capital Pristina on Monday, the official Yugoslav news agency Tanjug reported.

Balinovac said trials of Serbs in Kosovo were being held in exclusively "non-national courts, where the judge, prosecutor, translator, defense attorney, clerk and all other personnel are Albanians who turn the proceedings into political theatre".

But so far, only one international judge and one international prosecutor have been appointed to handle Mitrovica's towering caseload.

UN authorities have had trouble attracting foreign jurists to work in grim Mitrovica and local jurists have been loath to take on trials that could put them in personal danger.

"Nothing has changed in Mitrovica since last month," said a UN administration official, referring to indefinite postponements in March of several murder and war crimes trials.

The only unusual thing about the trial of the three Serbs which began on Tuesday was that it was being held at all.

"There was a shootout, part of which was caught on a video camera which the Serbs had installed in their home," said a UN official who asked not to be named.

"KFOR (NATO-led peace force) soldiers intervened and a second Albanian died, but the court ruled he was killed by KFOR while resisting arrest."

It was not clear whether the surviving Albanians had been charged as well - trials in Kosovo are given scant publicity to avoid inflaming the public and information is hard to come by.


The Momcilovic family were apparently among the many minority Serbs in Kosovo attacked by ethnic Albanians in revenge for a 1998-99 anti-separatist rampage by Serbian security forces that was halted by NATO air strikes.

Belgrade's troops and police withdrew last June, allowing more than 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to return home. Most of Kosovo's estimated 200,000 Serbs subsequently fled to Serbia proper for fear of reprisal.

Kosovo society is so torn that establishing neutral judicial bodies has been very difficult.

The first group of judges and prosecutors was appointed after months of delay.

"These jurists are mostly ethnic general the Serbs have refused to serve," said a UN official. Some experts believe ethnically motivated crimes here should be handled only by international jurists.

UN authorities have applied the Yugoslav criminal code in effect until 1989, when Kosovo's autonomy was revoked by Serbia's nationalist government and virtual police rule was imposed on the restive majority Albanians.

But the code yields to international human rights conventions where necessary - most notably, there is no death penalty.

Original article