Trial of Kosovo serbs for genocide resumed

The trial of two Kosovo Serbs, Miroslav Vuckovic and Bozur Bisevac, on the charge of genocide resumed before the District Court in Kosovska Mitrovica on 13 November.  The Humanitarian Law Center is observing all trials for ethnically motivated crimes in Kosovo. The panel, presided by Judge Mahmut Halimi and including international judge Christer Karphammer, is to establish whether the defendants committed the criminal offense charged by Prosecutor Jusuf Mejzini: deliberate and planned torching of villages and killing of Albanian civilians with the aim of partly or completely destroying the ethnic Albanian community.  Bisevac is being tried in absentia.

The 10 witnesses who gave testimony so far identified the defendants as persons who took part in burning down their villages and killing civilians.  The testimonies given in court, however, differed from the statements the witnesses made earlier to the investigating judge, and some were completely contradictory.  Defense counsel repeatedly pointed this out, and the court itself reacted on several occasions.  At the session on 6 November, Judge Halimi cautioned witness Hetem Sahiti that his testimony in which he said he saw Vuckovic and Bisevac looting and burning his house in Gusgavac village was inconsistent with his statement to the investigating judge that he had only heard about the event.

Defense counsel Miodrag Brkljac, Nenad Vukasovic, Miro Delevic and Ljubomir Pantovic maintain that Kosovo Albanian judges cannot be impartial because they are members of the same ethnic community which the defendants allegedly wanted to “partly or completely destroy.”  They filed for the recusal of all the judges on the panel, including the international judge, the president of the Kosovska Mitrovica District Court, and the president and judges of the Kosovo Supreme Court on the grounds that Judge Halimi was an “injured party” as his house and office were torched, District Court President Kaplan Baruti’s apartment was twice burglarized during the state of war last year, and theinternational judge was not a Yugoslav citizen.  The submission was denied by the Kosovo Supreme Court in August.

The defense also disputes the legality and legitimacy of the District Court in Kosovska Mitrovica, as well as its competence which, they allege, is in contravention of international law and UN Security Council resolution 1244.  They insisted that the court cite legal acts, if any, under which judges appointed by the Serbian Parliament could not hear cases in Kosovo.  The panel dismissed the competence appeal, on the grounds that the court was set up pursuant to a decision by the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to establish the UN civilian presence in Kosovo and did not threaten the territorial integrity of FR Yugoslavia. Vuckovic and Bisevac are charged with “creating a feeling of fear in Gusgavac and Suvi Do villages in early May 1999 by firing off weapons and making death threats with the aim of forcing the Albanian populations of the villages to leave, and partly or completely destroying the Albanian community.”  According to the indictment, after compelling the villagers to leave, the defendants divided valuables they found in the Albanian homes between themselves and set fire to the houses to prevent anyone from returning.  The defendants are also accused of murdering an elderly Albanian woman, Hazire Sahiti, “by setting her house on fire even though they knew she was inside.”  The prosecutor requested the presentation as evidence of a report submitted by French gendarmes and photographs they took which show that the Albanian villages of Gusgavac and Gornji Suvi Do were destroyed. During the investigation, Vuckovic denied all the charges against him. He said he worked for the ambulance service during the NATO intervention and helped Albanians.  He also said some Albanian houses in his home village Suvi Do, predominantly populated by Serbs, were burned but that he did not know by whom.

Vuckovic and Bisevac are being tried under the Criminal Procedure Code of the former Yugoslavia which was in force until 1989.  Miroslav Vuckovic has been in custody since 23 August last year.  He and Bisevac were indicted on 29 November 1999 and their trial opened on 6 June this year.  Sessions at which 25 witnesses were to give testimony have been postponed several times.