War crimes verdicts improve Kosovo-Serbia relations, experts say

06/03/2014

The Belgrade court decisions on war crimes committed in Kosovo will help improve the relationship between Albanians and Serbs, experts and citizens said.

By Safet Kabashaj and Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Pristina and Belgrade -- 06/03/14

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Future verdicts by the Belgrade High Court War Crimes Chamber could help improve relations between Serbia and Kosovo. [AFP]

War crimes verdicts in Belgrade for crimes committed in Kosovo could trigger positive changes in Kosovo-Serbia relations, experts said, noting the recent verdict by the Belgrade High Court War Crimes Chamber, which convicted nine former members of the Sakali (Jackals) group.

On February 11th, the nine were found guilty of killing more than 120 ethnic Albanian civilians in the villages of Qyshk/Cuska, Zahac, Pavlan and Lubeniq/Ljubenic in west Kosovo in April and May 1999.

The nine "committed murders, rapes and robberies in an extremely brutal way, with the main goal to spread fear among Albanian civilians in order to force them to leave their homes and flee to Albania," Judge Snezana Nikolic Garotic said in her verdict.

The sentences for the nine men ranged from two to 20 years in prison. Defendant Toplica Miladinovic was sentenced to 20 years in jail, along with two others. Seven defendants were sentenced to between two and 15 years in jail, while two were cleared of all charges.

The father of Agim Ceku, the minister of the Kosovo Security Force, was among the victims.

"It is good news that Belgrade has gained the political power to prosecute war crimes cases that happened in Kosovo," Ceku told SETimes.

Dusan Janjic, director of the Belgrade-based Forum for Ethnic Relations, said that while cases like Sakali are a shock to the Serbian public, the "demolition of myths" will have positive consequences.

"Two positive trends will emerge once when this becomes the praxis of the rule of law. The first is the public's confidence in institutions and the rule of law. The second is a change to the hard prejudice about what happened in the war in Serbia, which will allow Serbs to start to view Kosovo from the perspective of economic co-operation, as a neighbour," Janjic told SETimes.

For the families of the victims, the reality shows a different approach regarding court verdicts, said Bekim Blakaj, executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Kosovo. By providing witness reports and evidence in the trials, the victims' families tend to accept the courts' verdicts better.

"However, more important for the members of victims' families is the fact that the court proves responsibility for a crime. It's a public and legal admission that harm has been caused to these families," Blakaj told SETimes.

He said that future verdicts will have an impact on relations between the two nations.

"Public opinion in Serbia is changing. People are admitting the crimes committed against Albanians, and this creates a kind of empathy and solidarity with the victims," Blakaj said.

Bruno Vekaric, Serbia's deputy war crimes prosecutor, agreed.

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"The patriotism which was talked about then caused huge moral damage to our people and, unfortunately, put Serbia in an international pillory. This verdict shows that completely different winds blow here now and that everyone who has blood on their hands will be punished for their crimes," Vekaric told reporters after the verdict.

Abdulla Ahmedi, a 28-year-old Albanian from Preshevo in south Serbia and an activist at the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, said war crimes cases need to be processed more quickly.

"Maybe establishing an independent, common body for Belgrade and Pristina to deal with war crimes and help victims could help and improve these processes," Ahmedi told SETimes.

What can Serbia do to ensure that war crimes cases are processed in a timely manner? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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