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Yugoslavia: Judges In Mini-Buses Mete Out Quick Justice

  • Jeremy Bransten

Not only does Kosovo lack a police force in the aftermath of NATO's bombing campaign, it also lacks a court system to try alleged criminals. As a stopgap measure, the UN and OSCE have come up with an idea to try to deal with the problem: mobile judicial units. As RFE/RL's Jeremy Bransten -- who recently returned from the province -- reports, it's an imperfect solution for imperfect times.

Pristina, 4 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's bombardment of Kosovo and the subsequent withdrawal of Serbian forces has left the province with almost no policemen and no functioning courts.

With all types of crime on the rise -- from ordinary theft to ethnically motivated revenge attacks -- the UN has come up with a unique idea to tackle the problem: mobile judicial units.

The idea is simple. Since there are no courts to hear cases, each morning teams of judges and lawyers gather in the provincial capital Pristina and drive out in a fleet of mini-buses to mete out justice where it is most needed. Often, the mobile units head straight to KFOR military bases, where most alleged offenders are held.

Urdur Gunnarsdottir, spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kosovo, which organizes the units, explains:

"What these mobile units do: they consist of an investigative judge, a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. They simply look into the case of the detainee and look whether there is sufficient reason to keep these people in detention or whether they should be released."

In fact, most suspects are released -- some even before the mobile units arrive. As Captain Mike Cole, a lawyer with the British Army at a base in Lipjan, explains, jail space is limited.

Lipjan has room for about 60 detainees and in the current environment, people suspected of lesser crimes such as looting or making threats, must be released to make way for those accused of more serious crimes, such as murder. Detainees suspected of more than five murders are treated as alleged war criminals, who may be later handed over to international investigators working for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

The five countries which run the zones into which Kosovo is now divided -- Britain, the U.S., France, Italy and Germany -- apply their own national laws on the detention of suspects. Cole says that in Britain, suspects may be held for 48 hours of questioning before charges are filed. In that period, Cole reviews the case of each detainee and decides whether there is sufficient cause to hold the person until the mobile units arrive.

For those whose cases are judged worthy of further detention, initially by KFOR and later by the mobile units, the next step is a trial. However, no case has gone that far. The OSCE hopes trials may start as soon as next month, but more judges and lawyers will have to be appointed in the interim.

As Gunnarsdottir stresses, the mobile units are just the first step:

"The long term goals are, among others, to revise the criminal law so it conforms to international standards and to establish a permanent judiciary system, but that takes time and in the meantime, we have to have some solution. But the solution we are talking about now - it's only for the time being."

Standing in the way of a more permanent solution are two problems: staffing and Kosovo's laws.

To date, only 27 judges and lawyers have been appointed by the UN to staff the mobile units. The UN and the OSCE, says Gunnarsdottir, are looking for qualified local lawyers and judges with proven recent experience.

The issue is where to find them. After Belgrade abolished Kosovo's autonomy in 1990, tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians working in the public sector lost their jobs -- among them lawyers and judges. The majority of Serbian judges and prosecutors with recent experience in Kosovo worked to uphold Belgrade's repressive security regime.

The other problem is which criminal code will the judges employ? Officially, Kosovo remains part of Serbia. But in 1990, along with the abolition of autonomy, Serbian and federal Yugoslav laws were changed to discriminate against ethnic Albanians. Serbian police may be gone from the province, but provisions such as a ban on ethnic Albanians buying property from Serbs, for example, remain on the books. Should Kosovo go back to the old Yugoslav criminal code or draft a new one? And how will this affect the province's legal status? These questions will have to be addressed by the UN, which runs Kosovo as a de facto protectorate but has so far refused to acknowledge the situation.

In the meantime, Aziz Rexha, an ethnic Albanian and one of the newly appointed judges, says ethnic-Albanian suspects do not want to be tried using Serbian laws and he does not want to apply them. He hopes that by the time actual trials begin, a compromise will have been found.

For now, Serbs who appear before the mobile courts have the right to request a Serbian investigative judge, and the OSCE has made an effort to get several appointed.

In the long term, the UN wants to find a system that works for all of Kosovo's inhabitants, regardless of ethnic background. One thing is certain: as crime rates rise, practical decisions will have to be made soon.