Ethnic Crimes and UN Justice in Kosovo: The Trial of Igor Simic

Article excerpt

I recently returned from Kosovo, where I worked with the American Bar Association during an extended leave from my law school. As part of my preparation to train Kosovo defense counsel, I immersed myself in trials for ethnic crimes. I observed several complete trials and segments of a number of other trials. All the defendants were Serbs charged with committing genocide, war crimes, or comparable crimes against Kosovo Albanians. I was fascinated by the frightful swirl of confusion and aggression in these cases, by the tension between justice, politics, and revenge. Although I saw only one full day of trial in the case of Igor Simic, it was this case that fascinated me most. The case is emblematic of the UN's struggle to establish a judicial system for Kosovo. On the day I attended, all the deficiencies of that system presented themselves in stunning array.

On March 24, 1999, U.S. planes began bombing Serbia and its province of Kosovo. According to court documents and the accounts of survivors, on April 14, 1999, approximately three weeks after this NATO air campaign began, Serb forces arrived in a mixed Serb-Albanian neighborhood of the city of Mitrovica. The neighborhood had previously been isolated by Serb checkpoints. The Serbs instructed the Kosovo Albanians to remain in their houses and apartments with their identity cards at the ready. If the cards were in order, the Serbs promised, nothing would happen. The Kosovo Albanians complied. Then Serb paramilitaries in ski masks, most carrying firearms, but some brandishing what the indictment in translation termed "cold weapons" (knives and axes), knocked on the Albanian doors of M. Popovic Street and ordered the men to remain inside and the women and children to come out. The Kosovo Albanians did as they were told. Once on the street, the women and children were shoved to one side. The men were then ordered out and instructed to lie on the ground.

The scene on the street degenerated into pandemonium. The Serbs, approximately one hundred, including regulars in the army, reservists, and paramilitaries (still in ski masks), milled about, apparently without an officer or leader clearly in charge. Women cried out for their husbands, fathers, and brothers; some of the Serbs barked orders and fired their automatic weapons into the air; children screamed hysterically. Eventually the women and children were herded onto buses, which would wander around western Kosovo before depositing their cargo at the Albanian border. Some of the women reported hearing gunfire coming from their neighborhood as they trudged to the buses.

Eight weeks later, Slobodan Milosevic, President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, capitulated to NATO demands by ordering the army of the Federal Republic (now the de facto army of Greater Serbia) to evacuate Kosovo. The bombing had lasted for seventy-eight days, far longer than anyone in the West had anticipated. With the army went the Serb police and paramilitaries, and soon thereafter 150,000 Serb residents of Kosovo and almost as many Roma. These civilians were unwilling to find out firsthand what the returning Kosovo Albanians might have in store for them. The decision by civilian Serbs and Roma to flee was a wise one. The Kosovo Albanians, especially the guerilla fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army and related factions, were in no mood for nice distinctions. Too many Kosovo Albanians had been massacred (8,000-10,000 according to UN estimates); too many women raped (20,000 according to estimates of the Kosovo Center for the Protection of Women and Children); too many homes burned, bombed, or knocked down manually by brickbat (over 50 percent of all Kosovo Albanian residences according to UN estimates). These atrocities had followed ten years of humiliating apartheid and terrifying suppression of the Kosovo Albanians at the hands of the Serbian government under Milosevic. All Serbs were now regarded as murderers or accessories, and all Roma as their collaborators. …