Justice still wanting in Serbia

Justice still wanting in Serbia

logo_hillSerbia’s transition away from the Milosevic-led criminal state of the 1990’s is symbolically entering a new stage. 2015 begins with Serbia chairing the OSCE. Later in the year, the country hopes to open the first chapters of its European Union accession talks. While there are debates about the direction the Aleksandar Vucic-led government is taking on many important issues, the prime minister has made unequivocally bold and sweeping reforms on certain issues.

Facing a bloated public sector, record deficits, and 17 percent unemployment, Vucic has pledged major cuts to public pensions and wages, to privatize more than 500 state-owned companies, and to strip certain labor protections. In response to police services that had been judged as corrupt by both the Serbian public and politic, Vucic fired nearly every police chief. To ensure that September’s Pride Parade in Belgrade did not experience the violence that marred it in 2010, he deployed thousands of police, armored vehicles, and helicopters to protect several hundred marchers.

All of this occurred within Vucic’s first seven months in office.

In contrast to these bold and decisive actions, Prime Minister Vucic and his government have taken no discernable action on one issue that should be of special concern to U.S. policymakers – the unresolved murders of three American citizens at the end of the Kosovo war in 1999.

Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were born in the United States to Kosovar-Albanian parents. They joined five hundred other Americans to form the Atlantic Brigade of the Kosovo Liberation Army to fight Slobodan Milosevic’ genocidal attempts to create an ethnically pure Serbian state. After the war, while escorting Roma neighbors away from post-war revenge attacks in Kosovo, the Bytyqis were arrested by Serbian authorities for crossing an unmarked border. After a judge ordered their release, the Bytyqis were immediately kidnapped by Serbian special forces and driven away in an unmarked car. Three years later, their bodies were found in a mass grave with evidence that they had been executed at point-blank range.

Both the Serbian and United States governments agree that the Bytyqis were murdered. It is also not disputed that Goran “Guri” Radosaljevic had supervisory responsibility within the facility where the Bytyqis were murdered. Yet there have been no serious attempts to hold Radosaljevic or any other senior official within the chain of command accountable for these horrific crimes. Serbian prosecutors have complained that Radosaljevic has actively instructed and intimidated witnesses in the Bytyqi case.

Through the years, scores of U.S. ambassadors, diplomats, members of Congress, and senators from both parties have called for justice in the Bytyqi case. The surviving Long Island-based family has itself made extraordinary efforts, making more than fifty trips to Belgrade to ensure that the brothers’ murders are not simply forgotten. Action has been promised by past Serbian leaders.

Still, fifteen years later, Goran Radosaljevic remains free. More than that, he is a prominent member of Prime Minister’s Vucic’s Progressive Party, sitting on its Executive Board. He was even seen celebrating at the Progressive’s election-night party last March.

Roughly two months later, Vucic pledged action would be taken during the summer. Nothing happened. Judging from his very active first year in office, Vucic clearly has the ability to do something. Not even initial measures like suspending Radosaljevic from the Progressive Party have been taken. In fact, Radosaljevic and Vucic were again seen celebrating the Progressive Party’s sixth anniversary on Serbian national television just this past October.

The problems in the Bytyqi case might seem only “unfortunate” if it were an isolated case. It is not. The Humanitarian Law Center, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the European Commission have all concluded that Serbian commanders like Radosaljevic endemically escape with impunity. In the fifteen years since the end of the Balkan wars, Serbian authorities have not prosecuted a single high-level war-crimes suspect. This demonstrates more than just a lack of capacity or resources. It shows a lack of political will.

2015 will be milestone year for Serbia. U.S. policymakers must ensure that Serbia’s transition to the international community does not allow it to simply skip over a still unresolved and difficult past. Progress in the Bytyqi case should be understood as a condition for further development of our relationship with Serbia.

Madhiraju is a pro bono advisor to BytyqiBrothers.org and can be found on twitter @BytyqiBrothers. He is also a Law Fellow with the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG). The views expressed above are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of PILPG.