Montenegrin Judiciary in the Zmajevic Trial Snubs the Hague Tribunal Findings and Exonerates the Masterminds of Kosovo War Crimes

Montenegrin judiciary shifts the blame from Milosevic’s state policy of terror in Kosovo, whose main protagonists were convicted by the Hague Tribunal, to a private who allegedly spun out of control

The High Court in Podgorica convicted Vlado Zmajevic from Niksic, Montenegro to 14 years of prison for killing four civilians in the village of Zheger(Albanian)/Zegra (Serbian) in Kosovo during the war. However, the Montenegrin judiciary rebuffed the earlier findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague. Urged by the international community to produce results in the war crime cases and thereby fulfil at least something of Chapters 23 & 24 of the EU accession talks, the court in Montenegro indirectly exonerated the state policy of Slobodan Milosevic and his cronies which conducted a widespread campaign of persecution and terror against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. They ultimately had to stand trial in the Hague and ICTY convicted them to long-term prison.

CIN-CG investigation reveals that the Special Prosecution Office (SPO) also ignored the postulates in its own Strategy for Investigation of War Crimes. The experts believe the same. The Strategy emphasises that “the fight against war crimes impunity must be supported by more efficient investigations in accordance with international standards”.       

Goran Rodic, a lawyer with a great experience in the war crime proceedings, both in the Hague and in Montenegro, in the interview with CIN-CG points out to the European Convention on Human Rights and the practice of the European Court of Human Rights which go against the conduct of the Montenegrin judiciary and which may eventually reverse the Montenegrin verdict. Furthermore, the survivors of the village of Zheger/Zegra who had to face the war horrors have not come to terms with the trial outcome. They separately filed the criminal charges citing the names of other persons who committed the crime that Zmajevic was convicted of. They insist on the justice for their killed neighbours.

Former volunteer of the 3rd Battalion of the 175th Infantry Brigade of the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ), Vlado Zmajevic, was declared guilty by the first instance court on 5 June 2019. The case was originally investigated by the Serbian authorities and then handed over to Montenegro since Zmajevic was a citizen of Montenegro. The SPO accused him of “killing four Albanian civilians”- Imer Kadriu, Milazim Idrizi, and the Haziri couple (Qazim and Qamile) and he was further accused of “looting their property”.

Zmajevic had previously fought in the battle of Vukovar, Croatia. He had various jobs in the past and earned himself a criminal record, with a long history of serious illnesses. After his Kosovo “exploits” and alleged escape from the neuropsychiatric ward in Nis, he returned to Niksic. According to his family members, he worked there as an activist of the ruling party in electoral campaigns. Asked about this, the Niksic branch of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) first announced that it would send reply and then referred the CIN-CG reporter to the party headquarters, which did not respond before the publication.

Initially, Zmajevic was charged for murder of seven civilians. The SPO stated that he was “of sound mind and discretion” despite extensive medical records that denied the SPO allegation. The witnesses proposed by the prosecution all agreed that Zmajevic was seriously ill. There was nothing else that they could agree on. When the indictment was filed, the SPO reduced the number of Zmajevic’s “victims” to four. Defence lawyer Ljiljana Koldzic told CIN-CG that it was done due to embarrassment as “their Serbian counterparts only sent them a document of the Military Security Agency (VBA) and an empty file without a shred of evidence”.

Even for those four people, the evidence offered by the Serbian authorities is questionable and rather looks as a cover-up of what was really going on in Zheger/Zegra and the rest of Kosovo. Furthermore, the ballistic report that allegedly linked the killings to the weapon issued to Zmajevic “had gone missing” never to be found.

The Special Prosecutor proposed eight former soldiers and one reserve officer as witnesses. They were in the same unit with the accused. Allegedly two of them were first hand witnesses of Zmajevic’s crimes. Moreover the prosecutor presented Zmajevic’s confession before the military tribunal in Prishtina on 3 April 1999 (wherein he allegedly admitted “only three kills”) and a report of the Military Security Agency, which looked more like a communist-era political pamphlet on the fight against enemies of the people, designed to shield the generals who, nevertheless, eventually ended up in the Hague to stand trial for the crimes in Zheger/Zegra and other atrocities in Kosovo.

Reserve Lieutenant Danijel Colic claims that he saw Zmajevic firing three bullets at Imer Kadriu, a local shepherd, only “because he was a Shiptar” (derogatory for Albanians). However, no one else of those present saw such a thing, let alone confirmed it in court. Neither the lorry driver who was next to the lieutenant, nor the other soldiers saw it. Allegedly Zmajevic ordered a group of soldiers who were 500 metres away from the spot to remove the corpse. Armend Kadriu, the son of the deceased, in a statement given in Kosovo to the Montenegrin prosecutor on 16 January 2017, claims that his father had “four gunshot wounds and two stab wounds, presumably inflicted by knife”. In the video, which the former defence lawyer, the late Slavomir Bozovic, showed to CIN-CG journalist, Colic was visibly under stress during the hearing in Belgrade, squirming, as if he was tied up and trying to get free. He “could not remember anything” but he “adhered to his earlier statements”. He said he “did not report to the authorities the killing of Kadriu, but only that his two soldiers went missing” who were most likely busy with looting of Albanian houses. Lieutenant Colic also said that he had no control over the troops under his command.

The key witness of Serbian and Montenegrin prosecutors, Damir Novic, by his own admission, has a long history of psychiatric illnesses and  “swallows a handful of pills every day”. Novic was allegedly present when Zmajevic killed Milazim Idrizi and Qazim Haziri in the courtyard of the Haziri house and then inside the house he killed Qazim’s wife Qamile when “… he stood over her and took the combat knife that has that jagged blade and he struck her in the forehead with that knife … and he shot her in the head comrade judge, he wouldn’t wait”. In his earlier statement, Novic claimed that Zmajevic had struck the unfortunate woman twenty times with the knife. This is reinforced by Zmajevic’s “confession” back in 1999 before the military tribunal when Zmajevic reportedly said that after killing the two men in a house yard with his automatic rifle, he “pulled a knife from the belt and struck the woman twice in the head … and then fired a bullet at her”. The SPO repeats it in the indictment stating that Zmajevic struck Qamila with a knife “twice in the head and then fired two shots, one in the stomach and another in the chest from his automatic rifle … and thereby killed her”.

The problem with those allegations is the post-mortem record of the Gjilan Police Department with attached photographic report, all made on 31 March 1999 and signed by five authorised officials. It shows that late Qamile had no knife wounds, as described by Prosecutor Lidija Vukcevic, her witness Novic and Zmajevic himself in his “confession”. Moreover, there was neither the gunshot wound in the chest area which the prosecutor added in her indictment nor the gunshot wound in the head as the key witness claimed. There was only a gunshot wound in the upper right hip and traces of blood around her right ear without further explanation of what had caused it. Had Zmajevic struck the woman in the forehead with his knife even once, as the prosecution claimed, the photograph of the unfortunate woman would have been largely different. The post-mortem report also describes the location of the killed Milazim and Qazim and the distance between them, as well as the location wherefrom it was fired at them. All that rebuts the testimony of Novic. Other witnesses either knew nothing or heard something from Novic. The military authorities in Leskovac pressed charges for the aforementioned killings against all those former soldiers who later turned up as “witnesses”. The court in Serbia then quietly dismissed the case and focused on Zmajevic only as he was a Montenegrin citizen.

What really happened in Zheger/Zegra at the end of March 1999?

The Special Prosecution Office claims that the crime occurred “during an armed conflict between members of an armed military organisation, the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and members of the Yugoslav Army”, and that Zmajevic spun out of control and killed civilians who did not participate in the hostilities.

The Hague Tribunal (ICTY) gives a completely different description of the events in the final ruling of 23 January 2014 against Milosevic’s Kosovo Commissioner Nikola Sainovic, Generals Nebojsa Pavkovic, Vladimir Lazarevic and Sreten Lukic for crimes committed against Kosovo Albanians in 1999, including the one in Zheger/Zegra. Sainovic was sentenced to 18 years, Pavkovic (Third Army commander) to 22, Lukic (chief of Kosovo MUP staff) to 20, and Lazarevic (chief of the Pristina Corps staff) to 14 years in prison. The Appeals Chamber upheld the Trial Chamber’s ruling that in Zheger/Zegra “the Yugoslav Army and the Ministry of Interior (MUP), along with other irregular forces, expelled Kosovo Albanians from the village either directly or by threats, with beatings and killings, creating an atmosphere of fear”, whereby the accused in the case committed “deportation as a crime against humanity; other inhumane acts (forcible transfer) as a crime against humanity”. The Hague tribunal found that there was no KLA presence in the area at the time, which was often used as a pretext for the terror campaign against the majority Albanian population.

The KLA war logs record no presence in the area, let alone clashes with the army and the police. The only KLA member from the village and a former Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) officer, Agim Ramadani, fought at Koshare border post at the time and he fell there on 11 April 1999. A prosecution witness in the Hague Qamil Shabani from Zheger/Zegra said in the Tribunal that “paramilitary forces, with the help of local Serbs, went to some of the houses in this village looking for prominent locals to kill them” which was a standard form and prelude to mass ethnic cleansing. The Hague Tribunal found that the crime was pre-meditated and planned at the highest level. Moreover, according to many witnesses, the terror campaign was preceded by systematic racketeering of the population at the hands of local police and party officials of Milosevic’s SPS as the Zhegrans had a large and well-off diaspora in Switzerland.

During the Hague trial, Generals Pavkovic and Lazarevic each attributed to himself the merit of arresting Zmajevic and six others and sentencing them to long prison terms (allegedly Zmajevic was sentenced to 20 years) and referred to the aforesaid carefully crafted military intelligence report (VBA Official Note VP 1037 Nis No. K-470 dated 23 April 2005), which was also admitted by the Montenegrins into evidence. The Hague dismissed their allegations and evidence as untrue.

Now apart from the Hague Tribunal, on 14 February 2006, Zheger/Zegra residents pressed criminal charges before the Gjilan Prosecution Office. They listed the following names as the orchestra of death: Zheger/Zegra Community Centre chairman Momcilo Mihailovic, local police deputy chief Milan Milenkovic, Serbian Radical Party (SRS) official Pera Stojanovic and high inspector of the state security department (RDB) in Gjilan Sinisa Pavic. The Zhegrans claim that those individuals “updated and completed the kill lists with persons of note, political officials, intellectuals, teachers, persons with deep patriotic and national feelings…”. The Zhegrans also gave the names of people who, according to them, directly executed the prominent locals, including those that Zmajevic was accused of, so to force and scare the population to flee to Macedonia. They are a reserve police officer at the local police station Stanko Petkovic, the brother of the aforementioned Seselj’s SRS official Rade Stojanovic and member of the Gjilan State Security Department Jovan Stojanovic – all from Zheger/Zegra.

The Montenegrin court and prosecution refused to invite the local signatories to testify in court. Other motions by the defence lawyer to summon the locals who testified in the Hague and to admit the final verdicts of the Tribunal into the case file were rebuffed as well.

“Everything was rejected without an explanation. They just said ‘not accepted’”. The presiding judge went that far as to warn me that he would no longer allow me to mention the Hague verdict on pretence that it was irrelevant. Lo and behold, it’s quite the opposite because the persons were convicted precisely for the events in the village of Zheger/Zegra,” said lawyer Koldzic in the interview with CIN-CG.

The SPO proposed, and the court accepted, to invite only the families of the victims as witnesses on the Kosovo Albanian side. Nevertheless all of them save one were in Switzerland during the war and had no first hand knowledge of the crimes. It’s worth noting the statement of Muhadin Haziri, the son of the late Qazim and Qamile, given on 16 January 2017 in Kosovo before the Montenegrin prosecutor. He said that his cousin Fitim (whom Zmajevic allegedly pursued and broke into the house of the Haziris and killed his parents and uncle there) told him that he – Fitim, the Haziri couple and his uncle Milazim were taken to the police station before the massacre and interrogated. They were released, he says, only after Qazim Haziri had given a thousand German marks to the investigators. Later, the same persons from the police station appeared in front of the house of the Haziris (two of them) and one of them killed his parents and uncle. This is in line with what the Zhegrans claimed (before the Gjilan District Prosecutor) that powerful Serbs in the area targeted more prominent people, extorted money, drafted lists of those who ought to be killed and then sent police and security officers, who knew where to find them, to finish with them. Qamil Shabani told the same thing in his testimony before the Hague Tribunal.

The Haziris were a distinguished family. Milazim Idrizi, a local professor was a man of honour as well. The school in Zheger/Zegra is named after him. Furthermore Tahir Tahiri, the local leader of Rugova’s Democratic Alliance of Kosovo (LDK) was killed. The reputable Ukshini couple suffered the same fate. Zmajevic was also charged for the last three kills at the beginning of the investigation. Altogether 13 people were killed in the village.

It is hard to believe that Zmajevic, who previously lived in Zrenjanin and had never been to Zheger/Zegra before, knew who the most prominent and wealthiest people were in the village and where they lived. It is even less likely that local police, secret service (RDB) and Socialist Party chiefs would allow him to racketeer people before they do so. The Hague Tribunal found, as stated in its final verdict, that the top Serbian authorities had planned to conduct a campaign of terror and expulsion of the population. Thus freelancers like Zmajevic would not have a chance to act solo, except on the sidelines to pick up any valuables left after police and state security “swept the ground”.

At best, Zmajevic could have been tried for looting and destruction of property together with other “witnesses” who said that they were not stealing anything but only collecting valuables by the roads that the expelled Albanians had thrown off.

The Serbian state authorities wanted to reduce the state sponsored crime of deportation, killings and robbery to the excesses of a sick man from Niksic, while the Montenegrin counterparts helped them to look so. On the other hand Montenegro pays lip service to Euro-Atlantic values, the rule of law and the right to a fair trial.


Rodic: Only “Small Fish” Get Convicted   

Podgorica-based lawyer Goran Rodic, in the interview with CIN-CG, expressed his astonishment at the Montenegrin judiciary’s approach to the Zmajevic case. “If the defence presents evidence to substantiate its allegations and points out that the same were admitted in the Hague and if the final verdict, the case files and the witnesses in the Tribunal are relevant to the case in Montenegro then such proposals are justified. Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that the accused must be allowed to present evidence and witnesses that go in his favour. The jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, the Constitutional Court of Montenegro and the regular courts indicate that the accused has the right to do so. On those grounds the verdict can be successfuly appealed- when the accused is denied his rights either entirely or in part during the proceeding” Rodic said to CIN-CG. It is “general impression in the public” that Montenegro’s judiciary prosecutes and convicts only “small fish” for war crimes, while “big fish” get away, says lawyer Goran Rodic. However, according to him, there are certain limitations when it comes to thorough and successful investigations. The events took place long time ago hence it is hard to reconstruct them, witnesses pass away etc.

Jovo MARTINOVIĆ

 

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