Paul WatsonBoth Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo denounce UN over court-system snags
Paris, Thursday, August 24, 2000
MITROVICA, Kosovo - The United Nations, one of the world's most vocal champions of human rights, is facing mounting complaints that it has violated the most basic rules of justice in Kosovo, its protectorate.
Fourteen months after the United Nations took control of the Serbian province, both Serbs and ethnic Albanians are accusing criminal courts of excessive delays, bias among judges, widespread witness tampering and other serious violations of international rights to a fair trial.
Defending the world body, a spokeswoman, Susan Manuel, said that the United Nations was trying to make the local justice system work but that a boycott by Serbian prosecutors and judges - compounded by a chronic shortage of foreign aid money and experts - was making a difficult situation worse.
In addition, the foreign-led UN police force has complained that frequent intimidation of witnesses and court officials makes it extremely difficult to investigate and prosecute crimes.
Vladimir Vucetic is one of several prisoners whom Serbs point to as evidence that the United Nations is failing to ensure impartial justice in Kosovo.
The mentally disabled Serbian teen-ager has spent 11 months in UN detention awaiting trial. He was charged with genocide on Sept. 27, 1999, after an ethnic Albanian woman accused him of being in a group of Serbs who set fire to three houses here in Mitrovica.
His mother insists that the youth, who was 16 at the time, is not guilty of anything more than being simple-minded and easily manipulated.
"Give my son a chocolate bar, he'll jump from the roof," she said through an interpreter in a tiny room that serves as bedroom, kitchen and living room. "You can do everything with him when he doesn't understand.
"I can't understand why they don't find that one year is enough time for anybody to realize he made a mistake, let alone a retarded kid whose guilt has not been proved yet."
The boy used to attend a special school for the mentally disabled, said Father Svetislav Nojic, 63, a Serbian Orthodox priest whose daughter was one of the boy's teachers.
But for nearly a year now, the boy has shared a prison cell with three men, and although the is able to understand where he is, he's frightened.
"He responds to questions, but he generally keeps quiet," Father Nojic said. "He refuses most things and keeps saying he has a headache."
The mother said she had sent him out with 10 Yugoslav dinars, about 20 cents, to buy candy.
He was arrested by French troops, who brought him back to the family's home in northern Mitrovica, surrounded the house and searched it, she added.
UN police officers questioned her about a Serbian man with whom her son was alleged to have set fire to the houses, she said, and she insisted that she didn't know the man.
A U.S. prosecutor took control of the case Aug. 15, and the following day he reduced the charge of genocide to causing public danger. The trial is set to begin Thursday.
The lawyer, Zivojin Jokanovic, has defended Serbs charged with genocide and ethnic Albanians accused of terrorism. Right now, 43 of his non-Albanian clients are in Kosovo prisons. Half of them have been waiting more than a year for their trials, and that number will reach 80 percent by next month, he said in an interview.
The long delays not only violate the Serbian defendants' right to speedy trials but also give their ethnic Albanian accusers more time to coach and harass witnesses and prosecutors, Mr. Jokanovic charged.
"I think most witnesses are being trained by experts," the Serbian lawyer said. "The public prosecutor is often blatantly lying. "
Ms. Manuel, the UN spokeswoman in the case, acknowledged that the system was not perfect but said: "We've been trying to give some credit to the local judiciary.
When the judiciary was set up, it wasn't clear that Albanians would only act reasonably in terms of Albanian cases.
"There are Albanian judiciary officials who are very objective, but there have been enough cases where it wasn't happening that we had to introduce the idea of international judges."
The United Nations has only been able to recruit half the 12 foreign judges it seeks for Kosovo and just two of five foreign prosecutors. They work with 405 local court officials, almost all of whom are ethnic Albanians.
In a serious criminal case, such as murder, a foreign judge sits on a tribunal with two local judges and three jurors. The foreign judge can be overruled, and one already has been in a Mitrovica court, Mr. Jokanovic said.
A plan by Bernard Kouchner, the top UN administrator in Kosovo, to set up a special court to handle crimes of war or ethnic hatred is stalled because the UN General Assembly has yet to approve the $5 million initial budget plus $10 million a year to keep the court running, Ms. Manuel said.
Having more foreign judges won't "solve the problem but only soften it," Mr. Jokanovic argued, because they can be overruled by ethnic Albanians sitting on a tribunal. Serbs won't end their boycott because of the danger they face in Kosovo, he said.
Ethnic Albanians, too, are angry at the UN justice system and have accused Mr. Kouchner of pro-Serbian bias for blocking the release of an ethnic Albanian man accused of killing three Serbs, including a 4-year-old child, on May 28.
Serbian witnesses identified Afrim Zeqiri as the killer, and the license-plate of the car that they said fled the scene matched his. He later surrendered.
Seven ethnic Albanian witnesses testified in court that Mr. Zeqiri wasn't in the village of Cernica, in southeastern Kosovo, when the slayings took place.
A Finnish judge, Ante Ruotslainen, ruled that there was not enough evidence against Mr. Zeqiri to commit him to trial and ordered his release.
But Mr. Kouchner, who governs with the power of decree under a UN Security Council resolution, overruled the judge and said Mr. Zeqiri must be locked up for up to 30 days, pending review.
It was the sixth time Mr. Zeqiri had been jailed in a year for weapons offenses and threats against Serbs, Ms. Manuel said.