On the verdict of the Higher Court in Belgrade in the Trnje war crime trial

On the verdict of the Higher Court in Belgrade in the Trnje war crime trial

Specijalni sud

The Higher Court in Belgrade on 16 April 2019 handed down a verdict in the case against Pavle Gavrilović and Rajko Kozlina, for a crime committed in the village of Trnje/Terrnje, Kosovo, on 25 March 1999. Pavle Gavrilović was acquitted,but Rajko Kozlina was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) considers that the Court has erred in their assessment of the evidence against Pavle Gavrilović and in finding him not guilty, and that the sentence passed on Kozlina is too light for the severity and consequences of the crime he committed.

The Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor (OWCP) in 2013 indicted two former members of the Logistics Battalion of the 549th Motorised Brigade of the Yugoslav Army (YA 549th MtBr) – Pavle Gavrilović and Rajko Kozlina – for a crime committed on 25 March 1999 in the village of Trnje, where at least 31 Kosovo Albanian civilians were killed, including a pregnant woman and seven children. Although the indictment was brought in 2013, the trial did not open until February 2015.

Pavle Gavrilović, in his capacity as the Commander of the Logistics Battalion of the YA 549th MtBr, was charged with ordering the officers in the Battalion, including Rajko Kozlina, to carry out an attack on the village of Trnje, saying that “there should be no survivors”. Kozlina and members of the combat group under his command carried out the order. Božidar Delić, who was the commander of the YA 549th MtBr during the war in Kosovo, and who, when testifying before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, claimed to be responsible for everything that had happened in the area of responsibility of the brigade under his command, was not charged by the OWCP for this crime, but only called to testify as a witness.

When deciding the case, the Court did not believe the accounts of several members of the YA 549th MrBr who said that Gavrilović did issue an order on 25 March 1999 that “there should be no survivors” in the village of Trnje. The Court instead held that the allegation that Gavrilović had issued such an order was “not true to life”, because ordering that there should be no survivors is prohibited under the Protocol (II) Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 relating to the protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts. Also, since not all residents of Trnje had been killed on the said date, since some of them moved to a nearby village the next day, the order issued by Pavle Gavrilović, in the court’s view, could not be deemed to have been executed.

With respect to Rajko Kozlina, the Court found him guilty of killing 15 Albanian civilians in Trnje, and wounding two. When determining the sentence, the court found several mitigating factors to be present with respect to Kozlina, such as his family situation (his being married and the father of a minor), lack of prior convictions, the fact that he had not been prosecuted for any other crime at the time of sentencing, his young age at the time of the crime (he was 23), the fact that he had a job, and also that 20 years had passed since the commission of the crime. The death of a large number of civilians, including children, was taken as an aggravating circumstance.

In the HLC’s view, the Court was wrong not to believe those few members of the YA who were prepared to testify before a domestic court and tell the truth about what happened during the conflict in Kosovo. Assessing their testimonies as unclear, contradictory and not true to life, the Court took the side of those who claimed that the YA did not commit the crime against the civilians in Trnje, but only unblocked the Suva Reka-Orahovac road and seized control over the area. Such a stance by the Court definitely will not encourage former members of the military and police to come forward and tell the truth about the crimes their units were involved in and thus help to shed light on crimes that have not yet been prosecuted.

The HLC notes that the sentence imposed on Rajko Kozlina is inappropriately low, given the severity of the crime. At sentencing, the Court ascribed far too much weight to the mitigating circumstances – Kozlina’s being a family man, and the fact that the crime was committed 20 years ago – and not adequate weight to the fact that he killed women and children mercilessly.  Such a light sentence for so heinous a crime just goes to show that the Serbian institutions responsible for war crimes prosecution feel no compassion for the families of the war crimes victims who, twenty years after the end of the conflicts, are still awaiting justice.