Unprecedented war crimes tribunal to be set up in Kosovo

PRISTINA, May 9, 2000 -- (AFP) An unprecedented war crimes tribunal, placing international judges in local courts, is to be launched in Kosovo to jumpstart a legal system blocked by case overload and fears of ethnic bias, UN officials here said.

Some 40 suspected Kosovo Serb war criminals are held by UN police and with many of them on hunger strike after almost a year in pre-trial detention, pressure is mounting for their cases to come to court.

Only 13 have been indicted, said one legal expert, while the others are held on suspicion.

"If we succeed in setting this up by the end of June we'll have been highly successful," said Rolf Welberts, head of human rights and rule of law at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kosovo.

"It would be a record when you consider how slowly things go here," said Welberts, whose department both monitors and develops the budding legal system for the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

UNMIK has already held the suspected war criminals, some arrested in June 1999, for almost a year.

Under UNMIK's own regulations they can be held for 12 months before either having to face trial or being released, but Welberts was adamant they would not walk free if the tribunal is not ready.

"It must be. I don't even want to consider that possibility," he said, adding that UNMIK would try to renew the detention period if necessary.

"By regulation you can do anything in this system," where UNMIK head Bernard Kouchner has wide-ranging executive powers, he said.

The new tribunal for war and ethnic crimes will feature international judges alongside local Serb and ethnic Albanian magistrates in a bid to overcome deep-seated ethnic hatreds that could otherwise compromise judgements.

So far the only international judge in Kosovo has been employed in the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, scene of recurrent violent clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

Having spent months developing an applicable law -- a mixture of Yugoslav, Kosovar and international codes -- to try suspects, the new tribunal will still face many problems, not least the issue of security.

"Security is a daily fight," said UNMIK legal head Sylvie Pantz. "Until recently, I didn't have the personnel to secure hearings, to prevent people from outside from threatening the judges.

"I spend my life begging UNMIK police and KFOR (the international peacekeeping force). KFOR send me to the police and vice versa," she said.

In March the ethnic Albanian president of Mitrovica court ordered a Serbian war crimes suspect to face a court in the Serb-dominated north of the town but was forced to postpone the case for security reasons.

Mitrovica's international judge, Krister Karphammer of Sweden, said UN police and KFOR would not have been able to guarantee the safety of the people in court.

Pantz admitted that an ethnic Albanian judge trying a Serb for war crimes in the north of the town risked being "explosive" and said such cases would be better tried in the provincial capital Pristina.

Even in petty cases, Karphammer said there was frequently pressure on all involved.

"The witnesses, victims and even the translators are often threatened," he said. "Sometimes witnesses do not answer a summons, they hide or give false testimony," he said, stressing the problem was affecting all Kosovo.

International legal experts say that while security and pressure on judges make trying suspects in Kosovo difficult, they prefer to hold the trials here rather than in the war crimes court in The Hague.

The International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has only indicted five people after the Kosovo conflict, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four of his ministers.

Pantz said the ICTY was still blocked by cases from the three-year Bosnian war, while trials in Kosovo could be part of the healing process for a society ripped apart by ethnic war.

Original article