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Slowly, Serbia is prosecuting some of the war crimes committed during the Kosovo fighting of 1999, even while it has failed to deliver important suspects to the tribunal in The Hague.
Seven cases have been brought to trial, five in a war crimes court that has been partly financed by the U.S. government. Prosecutors and others say the trials suggest that the country is beginning, at least tentatively, to acknowledge its history.
These trials have highlighted some of the most brutal acts perpetrated by the Serb forces during wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, in which they tried to carve out territory for ethnic Serbs. The crimes range from the executions in 1991 of 192 Croatian men taken from the hospital in which they were seeking refuge, in the town of Vukovar, to the massacre of an extended Albanian family in Kosovo in 1999, when 45 people, including 14 children, a pregnant mother and a 90-year-old woman, were blown up by grenades and then shot.
"It points to the readiness of the state and judiciary to face the past," said Dragoljub Stankovic, one of five deputy prosecutors assigned to Serbia's war crimes department, of the trials.
Despite such praise from prosecutors, as well as victims' families and human rights groups, there are major omissions in the legal process. While the tribunal in The Hague has indicted senior Serb police and army officers for crimes committed during the 1999 Kosovo conflict, the Serbian courts have focused on mid-ranking officers, according to human rights groups and diplomats here. As a result, they say, a large group of senior officers has not been challenged about its role in the war.
And a prominent case, involving the killings of three American brothers in 1999, appears to be stuck. "In my opinion, many commanders of police stations" were involved in or ordered killings in Kosovo, said Natasa Kandic, a lawyer and the director of the Humanitarian Law Center, a Belgrade-based human rights advocacy group.
A number of senior police and army officers accused by human rights groups of ordering the crimes, or failing to prevent them, have remained at their posts.
They include Goran Radosavljevic, who before becoming the commander of the Serbian Gendarmerie led Serbia's special units during the Kosovo campaign, and the senior police officer in charge of war crimes investigations, Vozdan Gagic. Gagic was a member of the joint police and army command during the Kosovo campaign, a position in which, Kandic said, he would have known about war crimes taking place.
"It was impossible for him not to know," Kandic said.
Radosavljevic and Gagic have denied any involvement in war crimes.
"The army and the police are powerful, and barely reformed, institutions," said Bogdan Ivanisevic, director of Human Rights Watch here. "Addressing the responsibility of the senior officers would be quite a bite for the prosecutors, something they could do only if they felt supported by the government." The case of the Americans involves the Bytyqi brothers, from New York State, who were found in a mass grave, their hands bound and bullet wounds to the backs of their heads. They were found in 2001 buried near a police training camp. The three brothers were ethnic Albanians who had gone to fight along with about 400 other Albanian Americans in the conflict in Kosovo.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade say they believe that the brothers were killed because they were American and members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. They say prosecutors have sufficient evidence to bring the case to trial. The U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, recently said that the outcome of the investigation would influence the U.S. government's view as to Serbia's willingness to handle domestic war crimes cases. "It is time to bring the perpetrators to justice," he said.