Milosevic Awaits Tribunal, but Prisons Still Hold His Victims
Milosevic Awaits Tribunal, but Prisons Still Hold His Victims
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Milosevic Awaits Tribunal, but Prisons Still Hold His Victims

When former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic said in his first appearance at The Hague, "I consider this tribunal false tribunal," he was not only ungrammatical but also insincere. After all, back in 1995 he signed the Dayton peace agreement, thus recognizing the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, as this court is formally known.

Milosevic is also unoriginal. The man who said it first was the future father of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, at his trial in 1928 for his political activities as a communist. His statement then--"I do not recognize this court; I can only be tried by the court of my party"--is supposedly must reading for every child in Yugoslavia.

One child who learned it and took it to heart is a Kosovo Albanian who does not recognize the Yugoslav tribunal or Yugoslavia as such. At his trial in Nis in southern Serbia in March 2000, 26-year-old Albin Kurti repeated almost word for word what Tito had said. This was one year after Kurti's capture in Pristina by the Serb forces at the height of the crackdown in the southern province.

I first met Kurti in 1997 when we traveled with Mort Abramowitz, the International Crisis Group's founding father, to a then little-known possible trouble spot called Kosovo. Kurti was a recent college graduate and the leader of the Independent Students' Union in Kosovo. He was fluent in English and Serbian and very outspoken.

"We are trying to implement the will of our people for a free Kosovo through peaceful demonstration," he told us then about the student union's goals, and he repeated it at his trial. This strategy of peaceful resistance failed; the armed resistance was successful (albeit not entirely and at a very high cost).

In August 1998, when Adem Demaci, who had spent 28 years in Serb prisons, assumed the role of political representative of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Kurti became his secretary.

The Nis court sentence condemned Kurti for being a member of the students' union (though it was not an "enemy organization" but a peaceful, even passive, one). It also condemned him for organizing first-aid courses and blood donations and for having been a translator and facilitator of meetings between representatives of international community and leaders of the KLA. Never mind that these meetings had the goal of avoiding bloodshed.

Kurti was sentenced to 13 years for "threatening the territorial integrity" of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and four years for "associating for the purpose of performing hostile activities related to terrorism."

A hundred other Kosovo Albanians still held in Serb prisons went through false trials that had no relation to justice and were condemned for "terrorism." They did not benefit from the amnesty declared by Serbia earlier this year. Kurti is the only one of them to have a clearly political sentence; i.e. he is not accused of committing any violent acts or terrorism.

What makes his case more difficult to resolve is that he refuses to have a defense lawyer, arguing (ironically, just like Slobo), that the court judging him is illegal.

Belgrade has now dispatched to The Hague the man who conducted the war against Kosovo. Serbs are discovering mass grave after mass grave of Kosovo Albanians who were less lucky than Kurti and simply got murdered. Yugoslav state television is broadcasting a BBC documentary about the massacre in Srebrenica committed by Bosnian Serbs. Yet the authorities from Belgrade are keeping in jail a man who opposed the Milosevic regime, who narrowly escaped the fate of Srebrenica Muslims and who would probably appear moderate today in the Pristina political picture.

President Vojislav Kostunica of Yugoslavia is shortsighted if he does not understand that he hurts his own government by keeping in jail Kurti and the other Kosovo Albanians sentenced on trumped-up charges. Kostunica gained so many popularity points among his own people for opposing the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague that he can spare a few of these points to pardon Kurti and the other Kosovo Albanians. Otherwise, he will surely turn them into the new heroes and martyrs of Kosovo.

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