News 29 Jan 13

Yugoslav General’s Apology to Kosovo Victims 'Crucial'

Yugoslav Army general Dragoljub Ojdanic's admission that he committed war crimes against Kosovo Albanians in the 1990s is a symbolic step forward for Serbia, experts say.

Marija Ristic

“An admission of guilt and an apology is always important and valuable to the victims. To the families of victims, it means that someone finally admitted that the crime occurred, that their testimony was true and that the tragedy was not invented,” said Jelena Subotic, assistant professor at Georgia State University.

“This general apology that Ojdanic gave without much detail should be followed by more intimate apologies to the families,” Subotic added.

Ojdanic withdrew his appeal against the  International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY verdict against him in 2009, when he was found guilty of deportation and “other inhumane acts” against Kosovo Albanians during the late 1990s conflict.

“I express my sincere regret to all of those who suffered as a result of the conduct for which I have been convicted,” wrote Ojdanic in a letter sent to Hague Tribunal on January 25.

According to the ICTY’s verdict, Ojdanic “knew of the campaign of terror, violence and forcible displacement being carried out by VJ [Yugoslav Army] and Serbian ministry of internal affairs forces against Kosovo Albanians, but he refrained from taking effective measures at his disposal”.

Natasa Kandic, former head of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, said that Ojdanic’s statement was the “first major step towards Serbia facing the crimes committed against Albanians in Kosovo”.

“Many would say that the apology was not sincere, that it was pragmatically driven, but it is valuable. He is a general of the army which committed mass atrocities,” Kandic told Belgrade news agency Beta.

Ojdanic was charged in 1999 together with former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, former Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic, former Yugoslav Army commander Nebojsa Pavkovic, former chief of staff of the army’s Pristina corps Vladimir Lazarevic, and former head of the Serbian interior ministry for Kosovo, Sreten Lukic.

Subotic said that it could prove crucial if Ojdanic decides to cooperate with the ICTY prosecution and “to help as a witness against other generals who are before the Tribunal”.

“That would be very significant and it could strongly affect the trial [against Sainovic, Pavkovic, Lazarevic and Lukic]. However, up to now, there are no signals that Ojdanic would be willing to actually become a witness for the prosecution,” Subotic told Balkan Insight.

The case against the four Serb officials is currently at the appeal stage after they were sentenced to jail terms ranging 15 to 22 years for crimes against Kosovo Albanians during the conflict.

Subotic believes that it would be positive if Ojdanic’s confession to war crimes is used by local Serbian courts to prosecute top army officers for crimes in Kosovo.

No Serbian army or police officials have been charged for crimes in Kosovo so far, a situation that Subotic blamed on pressure on the judiciary by the Belgrade authorities.

“The country continues to protect the military’s high echelons, believing that disclosure of the army’s mass atrocities will adversely affect today's Serbian state,” she said.

The head of Serbia’s national council for cooperation with the ICTY, Rasim Ljajic, dismissed Ojdanic’s confession as irrelevant.

“His confession has no consequences for Serbia. It was his own personal action,” Ljajic told journalists.

He added that in August this year, Ojdanic will have served two-thirds of his sentence, which will enable him to ask for early release.

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