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Yugoslavia: War Crimes Investigations Face Formidable Obstacles

Prague, 29 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The following are excerpts of an interview conducted earlier this week (Jan. 27) with Grayham Bluitt, Deputy Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague. He spoke by telephone from The Hague with RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams.

Much of the interview focused on the overall process of war crimes investigations, in light of the killings earlier this month of 45 ethnic Albanian Kosovars in Racak, which is now under investigation. Teams of forensics experts --one comprised of Serbs and the other led by Finns, have been conducting autopsies.

Bluitt explains from a "prosecution" standpoint which autopsy holds -- that of the Finns or the Serbs.

"A combination of both. Let's say for example we were to bring a prosecution that relied on the evidence of the autopsies of the bodies that were killed...there would be a couple of elements. First of all, you would want to establish the cause of death of the victims. If there is any suggestion that prior to when the autopsies were made there was some interference with the bodies than you are going to have to try and find everybody who had any contact with that body or bodies leading up to the point of the autopsy. So, once a number of people get involved in the same process that process is going to get contaminated and makes it more difficult. So in this circumstance we would have to call initially the Serb forensic people who dealt with the bodies and then the Finnish team thereafter. But under the circumstances its difficult to imagine that the evidence coming out of this will be reliable because there would always be some doubt that somewhere along the way there was some interference with the evidence and hence the evidence becomes contaminated..."

Bluitt was asked "How often would you say it�s the case where 'the truth is never known,' as Finnish forensics team leader Helena Ranta has suggested could happen in Racak? And is it more often the case in places like Kosovo?"

Bluitt: "It really is very hard to generalize. But if I could explain using our experience in Bosnia following massacres in Srebrenica... There were executions and the bodies were buried immediately after the executions and then we come some years later and dig up the evidence, as it were, and exhume the bodies... there was evidence that was preserved in the ground, but what happened last year we found was that a lot of the mass graves had been tampered and interfered with and the bodies were even reburied so the forensic evidence again was being destroyed. But other elements come into it which are important for us, namely the fact that someone was hiding these bodies and trying to hide the evidence is indicative of guilt so that whilst we may lose some of the forensic evidence that may come out of it -- in terms of numbers of bodies in the grave or how they were killed. Nevertheless, we get other evidence that somebody is trying to hide what actually happened which is indicative of guilt so it brings forth another form of evidence we can use in court."

Bluitt was asked why the Hague tribunal was not yet involved in investigating the Racak case.

Bluitt: "The [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] has stated its position that the Tribunal has no jurisdiction over Kosovo. We think that is wrong and we reject it. The Prosecutor notwithstanding the fact that the visa has been denied for us to enter into Yugoslavia to visit Kosovo attempted to go by entering through Macedonia. But, she was turned back at the border. So there is this stalemate which exists between the tribunal and the FRY authorities. It was our intention to investigate in Racak and it is still our intention to do so, but not being able to go and enter the territory makes it far more difficult to do. And as each day goes by the probability that evidence is going to be lost is going to become stronger. We're still continuing our pursuit to get into Kosovo; there are a number of diplomatic initiatives underway. And we hope they will bear fruit. In the meantime, we are doing our best to continue without actually being there and it is possible to do that."

Bluitt was asked about the chances that anyone will be brought to justice if in fact the dead were massacred as some have claimed.

Bluitt: "That's fairly difficult to say. We've demonstrated already in the past that when we've not had access to the territory of the former Yugoslavia that we could nevertheless complete investigations and bring an indictment so the possibility of that happening with respect to Kosovo still exists."

Bluitt was asked about the urgency of tribunal prosecutors being given access to Kosovo.

Bluitt: "As each day goes by the probability of evidence being lost is increased so the sooner the better. But no, there is no end date to this. Crimes are being committed, or so it appears at least, and there are all these predictions that as Spring approaches the fighting is going to intensify, which means there are going to be more killings and unfortunately the probability that there are going to be more innocent civilians killed and its over the innocent civilians the Tribunal has its jurisdiction. The fighting that is taking place between the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) and Serb forces in itself does not constitute a war crime. Its only when international humanitarian law is broken that our jurisdiction triggers."