Many promises and no progress in the Bytyqi Case
This week, Vice President Joe Biden will meet with Serbian Minister Aleksandar Vučić and once again raise an issue that has been raised countless times by US officials, but never convincingly addressed – why have the murders of three American citizens by Serbian officials not been solved?
Brothers Ylli, Agron and Mehmet Bytyqi were executed 17 years ago in the training camp of the Serbian Special Police Units (SPU), and dumped into a mass grave. Two low-ranking members of the SPU were tried, only to be acquitted in 2013. No tangible progress has been made ever since.
The only instances when Serbian authorities mention any developments in the Bytyqi case are when they are about to meet US officials. During his visit to Washington in June 2015, the Serbian Prime Minister vowed that Serbia would solve the case “very soon” and the Ministry of the Interior announced that new evidence had been discovered. Vučić then announced the establishment of a special investigation commission, not explaining why the whole case should be transferred to the jurisdiction of a journalist-based commission at a time of alleged progress. The commission idea was eventually scrapped.
The head of the training center at the time, without whom, in the words of the War Crimes Prosecutor, “their execution couldn’t have happened,” was Goran “Guri” Radosavljevic – then a police general and now a member of the Main Board of Vučić’s political party.
So, why has there been no progress in the Bytyqi case? The fact is that there has never been the political will in Serbia to investigate cases like the Bytyqi case, nor has there been the political will to prosecute persons such as Goran Radosavljević.
Namely, the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor (OWCP) has never indicted senior perpetrators in the former Serbian military and police hierarchies, while Serbian leaders honor suspects and war criminals as heroes, appoint them to public office, or otherwise keep them as close allies.
Furthermore, state institutions obstruct the investigation of war crimes when the suspect is ‘one of their own’. The War Crimes Prosecutor publicly stated: “Whenever you investigate war crimes committed by the police you hit a wall of silence.” The ministries of the interior and defense systematically obstruct access to evidence in their archives and witnesses in war crimes trials are intimidated, as has been documented in the Bytyqi case.
Political authorities continually pressure the OWCP. An extreme example was when President Nikolić warned the Prosecutor “to be careful about what he is digging up in Serbia,” when evidence, implicating the current Chief of the Serbian Army with a mass grave, was revealed. Furthermore, the highest Government officials tend to ‘recommend’ the OWCP to concentrate on investigating crimes against Serbian victims.
Against this background, it comes as no surprise that the leading candidate for the new War Crimes Prosecutor has proposed in her program that the OWCP should focus on cases in which victims are of Serbian nationality.
The epitome of Serbia’s stance on the Bytyqi case is the recent statement of the Vice President of the second biggest party in government (Socialist Party), that the execution of the Bytyqi brothers should be treated as collateral damage, just like the death of two Serbian diplomats from US air strikes on an Islamic State camp in Libya last Spring. He emphasized that the United States has lost the “moral right to press Serbia for the killing of the Bytyqi brothers.”
Besides the striking ignorance of the law and the appalling view of the value of human life as an article of commerce in international relations, his statement aptly illustrates the premise that there is no genuine will in Serbia to solve the Bytyqi case.
Further to this point is the latest statement of the former Minister of the Interior, Dragan Jočić, who has accused Goran Radosavljević of the concealment of bodies of Kosovo Albanian victims in mass graves in Serbia, and publicly invited him to “finally solve the Bytyqi Case, over which American officials have tortured every Serbian government.” Jočić however, does not accuse “Guri” of the crimes, but of the sloppiness of the concealment operations.
The continuous demands of US officials for results in the Bytyqi case just might compel Serbia’s leaders to renounce Goran Radosavljevic or other war crimes suspects. However, in the current socio-political climate, it would be nothing more than scapegoating in order to stop the “Government’s torture”, and to shield the entire political apparatus that brought about the conflicts and hate, in which the Bytyqi brothers could not have escaped their fate.
Serbia is still far from embarking on a comprehensive truth-seeking endeavor about its violent past and, in that sense, the Bytyqi case isn’t exceptional, but rather paradigmatic. Protracted investigations, ineffective trials and impunity for mid and high ranking army and police officers – this is the image of Serbian war crimes prosecution, which, with the incentive and support of US partners, must change as soon as possible. 17 years later, witnesses are dying and memories are fading. Thus, time is becoming one of the greatest obstacles for justice reaching those who ordered and executed the Bytyqi brothers, and for Serbia to keep its many promises given to US officials.
Milica Kostić is the Legal Program Director at the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade and can be found @MDKostic.