Restart Kosovo judicial system

LIPLJAN, Jun 15, 2000 -- (Reuters) On the first night of the NATO raids on Kosovo, Nekibe Kelmendi's husband and two adult sons were kidnapped from their home.

Bajram Kelmendi was a prominent human rights lawyer and a member of a commission collecting evidence for the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, the UN body set up to investigate war crimes in the region.

Days later his body and those of his sons were found abandoned a few kilometers from Pristina. Their killers have not been brought to justice.

On Wednesday, one year later, Nebike Kelmendi, herself a judge for 30 years and now co-head of Kosovo's Judiciary Department - in effect its co-justice minister - took delivery of the first installment of $2.5 million worth of U.S. aid aimed at rebuilding the Serbian province's shattered judicial system.

In a moving plea for tolerance between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and its remaining Serbs, she told Reuters:

"The law is not possible for only one ethnic group. This is a multi-ethnic society and Kosovo should cut the negative links with its past and go forward. I am personally engaged in equality towards every citizen no matter what his race, religion or other background."

A slightly built, immensely dignified figure still dressed in mourning black, Kelmendi added: "I have never discriminated in my life and I have worked for more than 30 years in the judiciary. Before 1989 judges could try any case no matter what the ethnicity of the defendant."

It was in 1989 that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic rescinded Kosovo's autonomy and imposed direct rule from Belgrade. Since then, said Christopher Dell, chief of the U.S. mission in Kosovo, there had been no effective rule of law in Kosovo.

"In 1989 all ethnic Albanian judges were thrown out; judiciary buildings were destroyed or neglected," said Dell, who came to the refurbished courtroom in this town 20 km (12 miles) south of Pristina to hand over some of the computers, copiers, telephones, typewriters and other equipment that will help get the Kosovo legal system running again in 50 courts across the province.

"We had to recreate the Kosovo legal code, based on the pre-1989 system here," Dell told Reuters.

He conceded that this was in effect communist law, but said: "We had to start someplace. We were seeking a code that was acceptable to the people of Kosovo and any truly offensive elements were stripped out in consultation with the Council of Europe."

Kelmendi noted that after 1989 the Serb domination of Kosovo had meant that "no Albanian citizen could realize his rights in the Kosovo judiciary without bribing officials."

But ignoring the past, she said: "I call upon Serbian representatives to take their places in the judiciary because only in this way will they show they are committed to the independent functioning of a just legal system for all Kosovo citizenry."

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