Amnesty and UN staff accuse Kosovo war crimes tribunal of ethnic bias – The Guardian, June 2001

Amnesty and UN staff accuse Kosovo war crimes tribunal of ethnic bias

Special report: Kosovo
Special report: war crimes in the former Yugoslavia

Nicholas Wood in Pristina
Wednesday June 20, 2001

The Guardian

Human rights observers have accused the UN mission in Kosovo of continued ethnic bias in its judicial system and making “politically driven decisions”, in spite of the appointment of international judges and prosecutors.

The allegations, made yesterday by UN legal advisers and the human rights group Amnesty International, follow the sentencing of a Serb man to 15 years in prison for taking part in the Racak massacre.

The massacre of 45 ethnic Albanians in January 1999 was one of the factors which eventually led to the Nato airstrikes against Yugoslavia; it is perhaps the most sensitive case from the Kosovo conflict.

Witnesses claimed that Zoran Stanojevic, 35, a Serb former policeman, was seen killing one of the victims, a 62-year-old man from Racak.

But UN legal officials say his trial was dogged by procedural irregularities and that trial testimony was contradicted by forensic evidence and initial witness statements.

According to one UN legal officer with knowledge of the case, the panel of two international judges and one Albanian judge had considered abandoning the trial for lack of evidence, “but they didn’t dare to do it. Politically speaking it was not possible.

“The people of Racak would have been furious. Racak is a symbol of what happened during the war for all Albanians. They gave in to pressure, pressure that was exerted through out the case.”

The court had to abandon a reconstruction at the scene on two occasions after being threatened. On the first, two men, one armed with a Kalashnikov and another with a pistol, forced court officials to leave saying: “We don’t want any Serbs in our village.” On the second, a crowd of villagers denied them access.

A reconstruction of events later went ahead but without the accused or a defence counsel, also a Serb, present.

Four key trial witnesses altered their testimony between giving statements to members of the international criminal tribunal for Yugoslavia and appearing in court. Two witness claims that victims had been shot though the front of the head were contradicted by forensic evidence.

Tome Gashe, a lawyer representing the victim’s family, warned the judges during his summing up that unless they found Stanojevic guilty, “people will doubt the justice system”.

“They believe they will have to take justice into their own hand,” he added. “They will be forced to revenge what happened to their closest ones since it will be impossible for them to find peace, and as a result of this revenge, innocent people may be victimised.”

Stanojevic’s trial comes two years after the UN set up the judicial system in Kosovo.

A year ago it announced that it would introduce increased numbers of international judges and prosecutors to eliminate perceived bias in court cases.

But Amnesty International remains extremely concerned. “Despite the appointment of international prosecutors and judges to the Kosovo courts, the judicial system in Kosovo continues to be seriously flawed,” a spokeswoman said.

“From cases of unlawful pre-trial detention to procedural breaches in the conduct of trials, the administration of justice fails to be conducted in a manner consistent with international human rights standards.”

A senior UN legal official said the Stanojevic trial reflected weaknesses throughout the Kosovo judicial process. “The quality of evidence is very very poor and relies on testimony for which there is very little supporting evidence. No one hesitates to make things up. International judges were meant to alleviate concerns over bias and set a standard for effective justice. It [the policy] does not seem to have worked.”