News 26 Jan 16

Serbian Fighters Deny Killing 118 Kosovo Civilians

Eleven Serbian ex-fighters pleaded not guilty to war crimes in the Kosovo villages of Ljubenic, Cuska, Pavlan and Zahac in 1999, but anger erupted in the courtroom after the prosecution changed the indictment again.

Marija Ristic
BIRN
Belgrade
Destroyed house in the Kosovo village of Cuska. Photo courtesy of Swedish court

After changing the indictment several times over the past six years since the trial of 12 former Yugoslav Army troops charged with killing more than 118 Kosovo Albanians in 1999, the Serbian war crimes prosecution office issued another new indictment on Monday, sparking angry outbursts from some of the defendants.

War crimes prosecutor Dragoljub Stankovic said he decided to change indictment and make so the court could follow the proceedings.

“It is not a completely new indictment, it is just more comprehensive and without any substantial new details. I just wanted to make this process easier for everyone,” Stankovic explained.

He said that another reason for the latest change was to combine two initial indictments that were launched at different times, tackling the same events – attacks on the Kosovo villages of Ljubenic, Cuska, Pavlan and Zahac in April and May 1999 when the Kosovo Albanians were killed.

However, his decision to issue a new indictment sparked protests from some of the defendants.

“You are accusing me of everything. We have been here for six years and you cannot prove anything, and that is why you are changing it all the time, you are just inventing things,” Srecko Popovic, one of the defendants, told the court.

He then started shouting that the case was a great injustice, causing the judge to remove him from the courtroom.

The new indictment also angered defendant Abdulah Sokic who was also removed by the judge for offending the prosecutor.

All the other men pleaded not guilty.

The indictment accuses the 11 former fighters of killings, looting and torture in the four Kosovo villages, with the aim of permanently expelling the ethnic Albanian population from the area.

The initial trial started in December 2011 when 12 men were accused of murders and looting in just one of the villages, Cuska. It later expanded to cover the crimes committed in the other three villages – Ljubenic, Pavlan and Zahac. In 2014, the prosecutor issued one more indictment against three more people for the killings in Ljubenic.

In the same year, the first group of defendants was sentenced to a total of 106 years in prison.

But the Belgrade-based appeals court annulled the verdict last year, calling it “incomprehensible and contradictory”, and sent the case for retrial.

Alibi for Lazar Pavlovic

On Monday, defence witness Zoran Grujic testified that defendant Lazar Pavlovic was in Novi Sad in Serbia when the attack on Ljubenic took place.

“It was April 3rd. I remember we were sitting in a bar, playing cards, almost every night. Not just that night, but also nights before that one,” Grujic told the court.

Pavlovic is indicted for being one of the Serbian troops who executed more than around 60 men in the Kosovo village of Ljubenic on April 1, 1999.

 

At the retrial, in order to speed up the procedure, the prosecution combined the two indictments, making it into one case.

However, over time, the defendants also changed. One of the defendants become a protected witness. He is currently living in Germany and is about to testify in the case. Radoslav Brnovic, who was initially acquitted, died, so the case against him was terminated.

The case against two other defendants was also separated from the others.

Dejan Bulatovic, who was sentenced to 20 years, fell ill, so the case against him will continue when he is capable of attending the trial.

Ranko Momic, initially given 15 years, is currently on the run and so cannot yet be tried.

The case is considered one of the largest ever relating to Kosovo war crimes in the Belgrade courts, with hearings in the initial trial lasting for several years. The attack on the four villages and the subsequent cover-up attempts attacks were explored in a recent BIRN documentary, ‘The Unidentified’.

In August 2014, the Serbian war crimes prosecution also launched an investigation into Dragan Zivanovic, the former commander of the Yugoslav Army’s 125th Brigade, for allegedly doing nothing to prevent the murders of the Kosovo Albanians and the destruction of homes and property in the four villages. He is the first general in Serbia to be investigated for war crimes.

So far however, no indictment has been issued.

The trial resumes on February 22.

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