News 21 Jan 16

Kosovo Serb Leader Ivanovic Jailed for War Crimes

Kosovo Serb political party leader Oliver Ivanovic has been jailed for nine years for war crimes, convicted of ordering the murder of ethnic Albanians in Mitrovica in April 1999.

Behar Mustafa
BIRN
Mitrovica
Oliver Ivanovic in court. Photo: BETA.

Ivanovic, a former Serbian government official and head of a Kosovo Serb political party called Freedom, Democracy, Justice, was convicted of war crimes at the Basic Court in Mitrovica on Thursday and jailed for nine years - a verdict that caused fury in Belgrade.

Ivanovic was found guilty of ordering the murder of nine ethnic Albanians in Mitrovica on April 14, 1999 during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when he was allegedly the leader of a paramilitary police unit.

The Albanians were killed by so-called ‘Bridge Watchers’ - Serb hardliners who patrolled the main bridge in Mitrovica that divides the town into Serb and Albanian sectors.

“Oliver Ivanovic knew that an operation of expulsions and killings of Albanians was under way in Kosovska Mitrovica and knew that murders would follow. He encouraged paramilitaries to commit this crime,” said the EU rule-of-law mission judge at the trial, Roxana Comsa.

But Ivanovic was found not guilty of inciting the killings of ten ethnic Albanians by the ‘Bridge Watchers’ during unrest that erupted in Mitrovica on February 3, 2000, when many Albanians were driven out of their homes by Serbs.

Judge Comsa decided not to send Ivanovic to prison immediately but instead ordered house arrest until the appeals process is over.

Senior Serbian officials expressed anger at the conviction and threatened to reassess Belgrade’s participation in EU-led talks with Pristina.

“Serbia is disgusted with the verdict against Ivanovic. It has nothing to with justice and the law,” Marko Djuric, the head of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, told Serbian public broadcaster RTS.

Djuric accused the EULEX court in Kosovo of political bias, saying that the Serbian government must decide whether to continue its ongoing negotiations to normalise relations with Pristina.

“This is a red line that is pointing out that we should ask ourselves whether to continue, and in what way,” he said.

Serbian vice-premier Rasim Ljajic warned that security in Kosovo might deteriorate as a result.

“For sure, the situation in Kosovo will worsen. The verdict is politically motivated rather than based on the law,” Ljajic said.

Former Serb police chief Dragoljub Delibasic was also found not guilty on Thursday of incitement to aggravated murder on February 3, 2000.

Aleksandar Lazovic and father and son Nebojsa and Ilija Vujicic were found not guilty of aggravated murder on the same date. Like Ivanovic, they were ‘Bridge Watchers’ at the time of the unrest.

The nine Albanians killed on April 14, 1999 were Fatmir Mustafa, Skender Paqarada, Avni Abazi, Mehmet Seferi (Fejzullah), Isa Mustafa, Xhemshit Smajli, Behxhet Ferizi, Mentor Mehana and Shefki Kosumi.

They were shot dead a few streets away from their homes.

Their bodies were found six months later in Suhodoll cemetery in the village of Vidimric, in the north of Mitrovica, and were identified through DNA tests.

All of the defendants had pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

Ivanovic repeatedly claimed that his trial was politically motivated. He has been on hunger strike in protest several times.

The Belgrade authorities also appealed to the EU rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, EULEX several times for Ivanovic to be released from custody for the duration of his trial, offering guarantees that he would not flee.

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