by Vesna Peric Zimonjic
(IPS) BELGRADE -- The trial of three Kosovo Albanians seeks to establish the impartiality of The Hague tribunal but could also reopen old wounds.
The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has so far prosecuted mostly Serbs for atrocities against Albanians. This is the first time Albanians are being prosecuted for atrocities against Serbs.
Strong reactions could follow. The arrest of the three who have gone on trial, Fatmir Limaj, Haradin Bala and Isak Musliu almost two years ago led to mass protests among Kosovo Albanians, who see former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members as freedom fighters against Serb oppression.
"They (KLA) are people who fought against repression, for the long wanted dream of independence," Kosovo analyst Skeljzen Maliqi told IPS. "Ordinary people cannot take it that those fighters are treated as war criminals."
The United Nations founded tribunal has accused the three of torturing and murdering Serbs and also ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo during the 1998-99 conflict. All three claimed innocence in the pre-trial phase before the ICTY.
According to the indictment, the three detained up to 35 Serb and Albanian civilians in the Lapusnik prison camp in Kosovo in May 1998 and executed 24 of them by July.
The prosecution says the prisoners were kept under "brutal and inhumane conditions," and subjected to physical and psychological abuse.
Fourteen were murdered before Serb security forces took control of the area in July 1998. The KLA men then marched 21 detainees from the camp into the Berisa mountains where 10 ethnic Albanians were killed by Bala and Musliu under the orders of Limaj. He had accused them of collaborating with Serb security forces, the indictment says.
The events described in the indictment took place when Kosovo Albanians had started their armed rebellion against the central authorities in Belgrade. The southern Serbian province Kosovo was home to some two million ethnic Albanians who faced repression by the regime of former Serb president Slobodan Milosevic.
The Serbian government called their armed rebellion "terrorism." The KLA was the military wing of Kosovo Albanians.
Serbian security forces had became notorious for alleged war crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 and for the eviction of more than 800,000 people from their homes.
Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed during the conflict. About 3,000 are still reported missing, besides about 1,300 Serbs, who are believed to have become victim of KLA groups and ethnic Albanian revenge.
"We hope some light would be shed on what went on in Kosovo," Simo Spasic who heads the Belgrade Association of Missing Persons from Kosovo told IPS. "Ethnic Albanians were not the only victims."
Repression against ethnic Albanians and the non-cooperation of Belgrade in the international negotiations aimed at solving the Kosovo problem led to the 11 weeks of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing of Serbia in 1999. Belgrade later pulled out its troops from Kosovo in accordance with UN Resolution 1244, and the KLA was disbanded when NATO-led peacekeeping troops entered Kosovo in June 1999.
Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, where only 90,000 Serbs are left, now want complete independence. Some 200,000 Serbs fled the province in 1999 fearing revenge from ethnic Albanians.
The beginning of the trial was marred by reports of attempts to influence witnesses, most of them ethnic Albanians. The ICTY indicted Beqe Beqaj, a Kosovo Albanian, for making such moves. He was arrested in Kosovo by the peacekeeping forces last month. He appeared before the tribunal Nov. 8 and pleaded not guilty.
He faces seven years in prison if convicted for offering bribes to two witnesses, Rexhe Rexhaj and Rizah Rexhaj, to refrain from giving evidence against the three main accused.
In Serbia the start of the trial Monday passed with little mention in local media.
No officials were willing to comment on the case. They still regard the tribunal as a biased and anti-Serb institution. Most of those indicted or sentenced are ethnic Serbs. They were prosecuted for crimes against non-Serbs (Croats, Muslims or ethnic Albanians).
"It is important to see such a trial open, as in due time trust in ICTY has to be developed among Serbs," human rights activist Natasa Kandic told IPS.
Before Serbs the impartiality of the court is on trial. Last week investigators at the tribunal questioned a prominent Kosovo politician Ramush Haradinaj about his role as KLA leader. Serbia has charged him with several murders and other atrocities against Serb civilians during the Kosovo conflict.
Haradinaj leads the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, a party that ranked third in last month's elections for the Kosovo parliament.
November 19, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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