For 17 years, Fatos Bytyqi has been trying to get justice for his brothers’ killers. He says the man who ordered their deaths is a close associate of Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic.
Hampton Bays, New York — At the Hampton Bays Diner, brothers Ylli, Mehmet, Agron, and Ilir used to rendezvous after long days of working construction or making pizza. The brothers, all in their twenties, would deconstruct the days over beer and diner grub.
Today, the diner is shuttered and of the four brothers only Ilir remains living. It was out in New York that Ilir and his brothers drew the straws that sealed their fates. Kosovo was at war with Serbia, and the brothers were deciding which of them would join the Atlantic Brigade, a branch of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, composed mainly of Americans and Western European Kosovars. Ilir pulled the short end of the straw two out of three times, so Ylli, Mehmet, and Agron set off for Kosovo, and Ilir stayed behind to continue making money for his family.
Ilir’s other brother Fatos — who spells his name unusually, with an ‘e’ on the end because of a typo made by Serb officials on his documents — was in Prizren with his sister and parents. They did not know that three of their boys had signed up to fight for what they hoped would one day become an independent Kosovo. When the brothers were shown doing military exercises on a six o’clock news broadcast of Albanian TV in April of that year, Fatos had to flee Prizren, along with his brother, sister and parents. They feared reprisals from Serbian military forces, who were known to attack relatives of anyone who had joined the army. Their neighbors, the Mitrovices, a Roma family, helped them to flee over their balcony before dawn, barely escaping the police raid on their apartment. They made it to Albania, and the family was reunited after the war with their soldier sons.
After the war came reprisals on Roma families, who were seen by both Serb forces and Albanian forces as potential enemy collaborators. In July 1999, Ylli, 24, Agron, 23, and Mehmet, 21, who were all American citizens, decided to drive the three neighbors who had done their family a good turn to safety to Kraljevo, Serbia.
They were never to return.
Fatos started looking for his brothers after they didn’t return to Prizren, even journeying to the southern Serbian town of Prokuplje.
“I kept looking for them, they are my brothers,” Fatos told PI in an interview in a Hampton Bays cafe.
The bodies of Ylli, Mehmet and Agron were found in 2001 in an unmarked grave next to a police training camp in Petrovo Selo, near the town of Kladovo. Their hands has been bound with wire, their eyes blindfolded, and each skull had a single bullet hole: they were summarily executed. They were on top of a mass grave containing the bodies of 67 men and women from Kosovo.
“[The government] has known since 2000,” says Fatos. “They knew from the beginning who did it and they have the whole case, the entire thing. They have proof, they know who was in Petrovo Selo, who worked there, and why the Bytyqi brothers were murdered. They know everything, like all the governments. Not only the Vucic government but early governments, they knew it too, but really they didn’t want to take steps to deal with that.”
The brothers received a hero’s welcome in Prishtina before the bodies were sent back to the Bronx to be buried.
Court records later established that the brothers were picked up at the unmarked crossing at Merdare, today an official boundary with Serbia, and detained for entering Serbia without a visa. As they were leaving the local prison in Prokuplje, Serbia, they were once again taken into custody. They were driven to the police training center in the eastern Serbian town of Petrovo Selo, and detained there.
Their neighbor Miroslav Mitrovic, who had been notified that they would be released, waited for the brothers outside. He later testified that Aleksandar Djordjevic, who was then the head of the Prokuplje prison, told him that he saw two plainclothes police officers drive off with the brothers in an unmarked white car.
After years of lobbying by the Bytyqi family and the U.S. government, investigations began into who detained the brothers. According to B92, the first person to be investigated was Vlastimir Djordjevic, a former chief of public security in the interior ministry, who had already fled the country after receiving the Medal of the Yugoslav Flag of the First Degree from Milosevic in July 1999.
Former Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic said that Djordjevic was one of the men who implemented Milosevic’s order to hide or otherwise deal with Albanian victims in Kosovo, and had given the order to have the brothers driven to Petrovo Selo, something Djordjevic denies.
At that time, the state prosecutor also wanted to interview General Goran Radosavljevic, nicknamed “Guri,” who had been the commander of the special unit at the police training camp. He vehemently denies all allegations, saying that he was on a hunting holiday at that time.
The Serbian war crimes prosecution had been investigating Djordjevic, who is now serving an 18 year prison sentence handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, for crimes committed in Kosovo, as well as former interior minister Vlajko Stojilkovic, who committed suicide in 2002.
Witnesses, including Miroslav Mitrovic, who died in 2004 in Kraljevo, say that they have been subject to intimidation.
Two police officers were indicted by the Serbian war crimes prosecutor for driving the brothers to the camp. But after two trials, two appeals, and years of waiting, no one has been convicted. The two officials were acquitted in 2012. During the trial, the defendants had said that Vlastimir Djordjevic had ordered them to drive the brothers to Petrovo Selo.
The Bytyqi family and their pro bono lawyer say that their investigations prove that the orders to execute the three brothers likely came straight from the Interior Ministry headquarters, passed down from Radosavljevic.
Serbian prosecutors as well as the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center say that Radosavljevic, who retired from military service and is now a businessman serving in the presidency of Serbia’s ruling party, SNS, has interfered in the case and intimidated witnesses.
Radosavljevic has adamantly denied all charges.
Even after all these years, Fatos Bytyqi makes regular trips to Serbia to raise awareness of his family’s plight and seek justice.
“I am never afraid to tell the other side: you killed with a gun, but we will convict you under your own laws.”
Serbian political leaders have repeatedly failed to deliver justice for the Bytyqi brothers despite promises from the highest level, including premier Aleksandar Vucic, says Fatos.
Even PM Vucic told me, it is not only Guri. It is the whole system. And that’s why it is taking so long. Fatose Bytyqi
“They have proof, they know who was in Petrovo Selo, who worked there, and why the Bytyqi brothers were murdered,” said Fatos. “They know everything, like all the [post-war] governments. Not only the Vucic government but early governments, they knew it too, but really they didn’t want to take steps to deal with that…Even [PM] Vucic told me, it is not only Guri. It is the whole system. And that’s why it is taking so long.”
Belgrade has for years been unwilling to prosecute war crimes, says Milica Kostic, legal program director at the Humanitarian Law Center.
“This case is paradigmatic and it nicely captures almost all the failures of the Serbian war crimes prosecution system,” Kostic told PI.
The War Crimes Prosecutor publicly stated: Whenever you investigate war crimes committed by the police you hit a wall of silence. Milica Kostic
“The fact is that there has never been the political will in Serbia to investigate cases like the Bytyqi case, nor has there been the political will to prosecute persons such as Goran Radosavljević. The Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor has never indicted senior perpetrators in the former Serbian military and police hierarchies, while Serbian leaders honor suspects and war criminals as heroes, appoint them to public office, or otherwise keep them as close allies. The War Crimes Prosecutor publicly stated: “Whenever you investigate war crimes committed by the police you hit a wall of silence.”
In fact, in late 2014 two SNS MPs filed criminal charges of espionage against war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic for allegedly sharing information about the Bytyqi case with officials at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.
Moreover, says Kostic, “the ministries of the interior and defense systematically obstruct access to evidence in their archives and witnesses in war crimes trials are intimidated, as has been documented in the Bytyqi case.”
Prime Minister Vucic has repeatedly promised to make progress on the case, pledging first that the case would be resolved by Summer 2014, then by March 2015. During a June 2016 visit to Washington, D.C., he said “we’ll resolve it, and I think that it’s our job, it’s our duty to do it,” and that the case would be resolved “very soon or much sooner than anybody might expect.”
Fatos continues to advocate for a verdict and is fed up with the lack of resolution.
“Prime Minister Vucic has been running Serbia for at least three years and keeps making empty promises in my brothers’ cases,” he told PI. “My family has suffered enough. His empty promises don’t make us feel better. We deserve justice. He has promised us justice. We expect justice.”
Praveen Madhiraju, a pro bono lawyer for the Bytyqi family, says that there is no excuse for the years of broken promises.
“Mr. Vucic has unparalleled political power and popularity in Serbia. There are no excuses why he has done next to nothing to resolve the Bytyqi case. If he values his many promises to a grieving family, the U.S. public and our highest officials, he should quickly and cleanly break with war criminals like Goran Radosavljevic Guri and take serious steps to resolve the Bytyqi case.”
No one has ever been prosecuted for this operation. No family member has ever received reparations. No victim or mass grave has ever been memorialized in any way. No real effort is being put into finding those responsible for finding the other missing victims. Praveen Madhiraju
The fact that they are U.S. citizens has drawn more scrutiny. The bodies of 938 Kosovo Albanians were found in mass graves in Serbia, and according to the Humanitarian Law Center, 110 people who are responsible for operations to unearth and hide the corpses, including top level officials, continue to live freely in Serbia.
“The Bytyqi family saw the same fate as the families of 938 victims found in mass graves in Serbia. No one has ever been prosecuted for this operation. No family member has ever received reparations. No victim or mass grave has ever been memorialized in any way. No real effort is being put into finding those responsible for finding the other missing victims.”
One month after a visit with former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs last June, Vucic said he was committed to solving the murders.
“I know how it is with Serbs, many would say ‘why should we solve this, they are Albanians.’ But not to conceal even a single crime,” he told reporters.
A State Department official told PI on background that the case remains a priority in bilateral relations with Serbia. “Serbian officials have pledged that their government will do everything in its power to resolve the case, and we regularly raise it in interactions with Serbian officials at all levels,” the official said.
The FBI and the State Department are actively involved in the case, says Madhiraju, and New York Congressman Lee Zeldin has sponsored a resolution in the House of Representatives calling the fact that no individual has been held responsible is “reprehensible” and that “progress in resolving this case should remain a significant factor determining the further development of U.S.-Serbian relations.”
Madhiraju expects that the bill will pass this year.
Washington has also demanded that Serbia hold to account the people who set the former U.S. Embassy in Belgrade on fire in response to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. However, the amount of pressure the U.S. can exert on Belgrade may not be enough, according to former US Ambassador Bob Barry, now a pro bono adviser to the Bytyqi family
“In terms of past US government efforts it is important to bear in mind that we have a variety of interests to pursue with Serbia, and they are often contradictory,” Barry told PI. “The Serbs understand this and act accordingly.”
Kostic laments that the EU has not shown leadership on the issue, despite the fact that dealing with war crimes is an obligation for EU accession.
“The National Strategy for War Crimes was an obligation under the Action plan for Chapter 23 in Serbia’s EU negotiations, yet it’s been blocked essentially by the lack of elections of the War Crimes Prosecutor and apart from some strong language from the EU here and there, not much pressure is being exerted.”
Serbia is holding presidential elections in April 2, but resolution of war crimes will not be a priority for the new administration, says Kostic.
“None of the presidential candidates are speaking about this topic, let alone sending a message to their potential electorate that they will fight impunity for war crimes, even those liberal, pro-European, pro-human rights candidates,” she said.
Current President Tomislav Nikolić warned a prosecutor “to be careful about what he is digging up in Serbia” when evidence implicating the current chief of the Serbian army with a mass grave was revealed.
Serbia has failed to comply with decisions of the ICTY which ruled that Belgrade must send three members of the Serbian Radical Party accused of contempt of court to the Hague to stand trial. The ruling party SNS has also hosted convicted war criminals at party meetings and rallies. At one, members of the Belgrade-based Youth Initiative for Human Rights protested, but they were almost immediately beaten up and were subject to threats and vandalism.
“If the ruling party is happy to beat, or at least defend the beating of practically children-activists over a convicted war criminal who is, in that sense, uncontroversial, imagine what they’re prepared to do for someone with whom they have an actual political deal and who might be facing a 20 year sentence,” Kostic said, referring to Radosavljevic.
Fatose’s efforts are heroic. If the Serbian government thinks he will give up, they are mistaken. Robert Barry
None of this has discouraged Fatos, who traveled to Belgrade most recently in November 2016, appearing on the Serbian investigative show Insajder titled “Collective Amnesia,” even speaking Serbian in the hopes that it would help the Serbian public better understand his struggle.
“Fatos’s efforts are heroic,” says retired U.S. Ambassador Robert Barry, a pro bono adviser to the Bytyqi family. “If the Serbian government thinks he will give up, they are mistaken.”
At a cafe just across the street from the closed up Hampton Bays diner, Fatos underscores his unwavering commitment.
“I am not going to give up until I die. No matter where the block comes we are going to see justice. But I can tell them, they are going to destroy themselves, but not me. The shame is on them, not us.”