Prishtina is seeking the arrest of 18 Serb suspects for the 1999 Reçak/Racak massacre which helped to spark NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, but some states may refuse to extradite them to Kosovo.
Kosovo’s Justice Minister Albulena Haxhiu said on Monday that “for the first time, serious efforts are being made to deal with war crimes” after the Prishtina authorities announced they are seeking 18 Serb suspects for arrest over the 1999 Reçak/Racak massacre.
“This is the news that the public and the families of those who were killed have been waiting for years,” Kosovo Minister of Justice, Albulena Haxhiu, wrote on Facebook on Monday.
Kosovo has asked Interpol, via the UN’s Kosovo mission UNMIK, to issue ‘red notices’ calling on states around the world to arrest the suspects.
The suspects could also be tried in absentia in Kosovo under legal changes adopted in 2019 and then further amended in 2021 to make it easier to try people who live outside the country and cannot be brought to court.
But no war crimes suspects have been tried in their absence since the law was changed, and in her Facebook post, Haxhiu accused the Kosovo judiciary of inaction.
“Does the system have an answer as to why the provisions for the trial in absentia of war criminals are not being implemented even though we have removed the obstacles?” she asked.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti announced that 18 suspects are being sought for their participation in the Reçak/Racak killings during his speech at the massacre’s 24-year anniversary commemoration on Sunday.
“A crime against humanity and genocide like the one committed by Serbian forces in Reçak on January 15 cannot be erased, cannot be obscured and cannot be amnestied,” Kurti said.
He added that the 18 suspects were being sought on the basis of statements of 63 witnesses who have been interviewed and evidence from the Hague Tribunal.
Serbian security forces surrounded Reçak/Racak and started attacking it on the morning of January 15, 1999.
They entered the village and raided the houses one by one. Some locals tried to hide, but were discovered, beaten, taken away and shot. A total of 44 villagers were killed.
Serbia initially insisted the casualties were all fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army.
But William Walker, chief of the OSCE ceasefire verification mission to Kosovo, who visited the scene the following day, called it a “crime against humanity” and insisted that the victims were civilians.
The attack formed part of the Hague prosecution’s indictment of Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic. But no verdict was ever delivered because Milosevic died in 2006 while in detention.
Many of the suspects for war crimes in Kosovo are in Serbia and cannot be reached by the Kosovo judiciary.
Alija said he thought that the judiciary will soon start using the option of holding trials without the defendants present.
“Very soon we can expect the prosecution to start issuing the first lawsuits and start war crime trials in absentia at Prishtina Basic Court,” he said.
However, he added: “The effectiveness of such processes and how much the rights of the parties in the procedure will be respected with the initiation of these judicial procedures in absentia remains to be seen in the future if Kosovo is admitted to the Council of Europe and with challenges to these processes before the European Court for Human Rights.”
Kosovo applied to join the Council of Europe, Europe’s main human rights organisation, in May 2022.
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