Prokuplje Court Hands Down Sentence For War Crime

The Humanitarian Law Center is pleased to note that the recent conviction of Ivan Nikolic puts an end to the longstanding practice of allowing war crimes to go unpunished. On 8 July this year, the District Court in Prokuplje found Nikolic (30), a former Yugoslav Army reservist, guilty of killing two Kosovo Albanian civilians, Vlaznimi Emini and Bahri Emini, near Penduh village in Kosovo on 24 May 1999 and sentenced him to eight years in prison.

During the trial, individuals and groups acclaimed the defendant as a hero and patriot who fought for Serbia’s national interests in Kosovo. In pronouncing the sentence, Presiding Judge Dragan Tacic came out against those seeking to shield Nikolic from responsibility by saying he would have been a patriot if he had shot two enemy soldiers in combat but that the murder of two civilians made him a war criminal.

The HLC considers that the Prokuplje District Court handed down a sentence based on the information given by Nikolic to the military authorities after his arrest and during the investigation. Of particular importance is the fact that the count of murder in the original indictment was amended to a war crime against the civilian population since Nikolic killed the Eminis during the armed conflict in Kosovo.

The frequent changing of testimony by both the defendant and witnesses during the trial will be a problem also at all future war crimes trials before national courts. A serious shortcoming at the Prokuplje trial was the absence of any family members of the victims or an attorney to represent their interests. Furthermore, the prosecutor made a grave error when he asked the court to consider the defendant’s youth and bravery during the fighting in Kosovo as a mitigating factor when deciding on the sentence.

The HLC considers, however, that the term of eight years in prison is not proportionate to the seriousness of the Nikolic’s crime.

The Facts:

Yugoslav Army reservist Ivan Nikolic killed Vlaznimi and Bahri Emini near Penduh village on 24 May 1999. The two Albanians were on the Pristina-Podujevo road when a military column appeared. Warned by the officer in command to get off the road, they stepped into a nearby ditch. Ivan Nikolic dragged them out, struck them several times and ordered them to lie on the ground. When the Eminis tried to escape, Nikolic fired a burst of shots at them, killing them instantly.

Djordje Ignjatovic, a police officer from Prokuplje who testified as a witness at Nikolic’s trial, said he was at work at the Luzani police station on 24 May 1999 when Nikolic arrived in a truck with other reservists. Five or six reservists came into the station while the others remained outside. Ignjatovic said the soldiers were intoxicated and verbally and physically abused some Albanian civilians who had been called in for investigatory interrogations. He said he particularly remembers the defendant, who was also drunk and, instead of the regulation cap, had a scarf tied around his head. The witness quoted Nikolic as saying: “I’m a little Rambo. I zapped two Albanians on the way here,” and stood by his statement when confronted with the defendant.