Genocide case to be first Kosovo war crimes trial
PRISTINA, May 15, 2000 -- (Reuters) The first war crimes trial stemming from the Kosovo conflict is due to open in a district court on Monday, when a 21-year-old Serb faces a charge of genocide for allegedly killing ethnic Albanians.
The court, staffed by only Albanian judges in the eastern city of Gnjilane, decided to hold the trial despite international authorities' plans for a special court with foreign judges to try war crimes cases and others in which ethnic bias may play a role.
Milos Jokic, a student, stands accused of leading a nine-member Serb paramilitary group which terrorized members of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority during NATO's bombing campaign last year to drive Serb forces out of the province.
He is accused of killing one ethnic Albanian and ordering the killing of another in the village of Verban, southeastern Kosovo, as well as expelling thousands more from their homes.
His lawyer insists he is innocent of all accusations and that there was no Serb paramilitary activity in the area.
She has filed an application for the case to be re-examined by international investigators and transferred to the new court for war crimes and ethnically motivated offences, which authorities aim to set up in the Kosovo capital Pristina by June.
International officials expect the court to at least agree to a postponement, making Monday's session brief.
They have expressed surprise at the prosecutor's decision to bring a charge of genocide in a case involving only two killings.
But the prosecutor, Sabit Maliqi, defends the charge and insists the local court can hold a fair trial.
"For genocide, there should be murders and expulsion of people of one nationality, in this case Albanians," he said.
"In this case, more than 2,500 people were expelled. Some stayed in the mountains in tents and others were forcibly expelled to Macedonia," he told Reuters.
"These are all elements of the charge of genocide and this is why I decided upon it," he said.
DEFENSE SEES ALBANIAN PLOT
Stoja Duricic, one of Jokic's defense lawyers, told Reuters she suspected the case against her client had been manufactured by former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army in an attempt to drive his family out of the province.
"There's no evidence that one person could have carried out genocide," she said. "There were no paramilitary units, neither Albanian nor Serbian, in that region," Duricic added.
She said she believed the KLA, which fought against Serb rule and has now officially disbanded, hoped Jokic would be convicted, sparking revenge attacks by Albanians on his family. "That's the way Albanians push Serbs out of Kosovo," she said.
Several other war crimes trials are due to begin in Kosovo in the coming weeks. About 40 people have been charged with war crimes or ethnically motivated postwar crimes and about a dozen have been indicted, according to international officials.
The province's United Nations-led administration has not yet said if it will transfer any of the cases to its new court, which some officials doubt can be set up as quickly as planned.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague also has the power to take over such cases, but its prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, has made clear she intends to focus on top officials suspected of major war crimes.
CASE SPOTLIGHTS UN's PROBLEMS
Monday's case and the others which will follow highlight the dilemmas and difficulties which the UN has faced in trying to get a functioning justice system up and running since it took over responsibility for Kosovo's civil affairs last June.
Against some expert advice to use international judges from the start, it first tried to kick start a local justice system.
Faced with an almost complete refusal by Serb judges to serve, however, it has already recruited a foreign judge and prosecutor in the volatile city of Mitrovica. Establishment of the new court in Pristina is another step in the same direction.
"We're not saying there are not impartial judges, be they Serb or Albanian," said Rolf Welberts, director of the rule of law division at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's operation in Kosovo.
"But it's clearly easier with...a war crimes case if you have international participation," said Welberts, whose organization is part of the U.N.-led administration but advocated widespread use of foreign legal personnel from early on in the mission.
He stressed, however, that the Gnjilane court was perfectly entitled to try the genocide charge, brought under Article 141 of the Yugoslav penal code. Legally, Kosovo remains a part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, although under de facto international rule.
"That is the competent court," he said. "There is no other in place at the moment."