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Ahead Of Possible Release, Kosovar Victims' Family Fears Hero Status For Serbian War Criminal

People in Pristina pay their last respects in 2002 to the three Bytyqi brothers who were killed in Serbia in 1999.

War criminals or war heroes?

For Ilir Bytyqi, whose three brothers were killed in Serbia in 1999, the distinction has become so lost that it makes him nauseous. Literally.

So, as the June 17 hearing at the UN war crimes court on the early release of Vlastimir Djordjevic approaches, the 46-year-old U.S. citizen born to ethnic Albanian parents once again feels uneasy.

Bytyqi, and many others, fear that Djordjevic will become the latest war criminal to have joined Serbian politics after serving a sentence thanks in part to the government and media, which have promoted them as heroes.

In an attempt to avoid that, the family has started a campaign to prevent Djordjevic from being granted an early release at a June 17 hearing at the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), which has taken over from the former International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

An online petition with more than 1,700 signatures asks the court to keep Djordjevic behind bars until he demonstrates "rehabilitation" and "substantial cooperation with authorities in revealing where any more mass graves may be located."

'Treated Like Heroes'

"I'm sick of war criminals being treated like heroes," he says of Djordjevic's possible release and what could follow. "Djordjevic ordered my brothers kidnapped and taken to a site where he had recently dug a mass grave for 75 people. He is responsible for my brothers' murders and should not be granted early release until he shows he is reformed."

Djordjevic was convicted in 2011 of crimes against humanity and war crimes against Kosovar Albanians in 1999, including organizing the transfer of bodies and interments in Serbia and a subsequent cover-up. He has not admitted guilt in the killings.

Ilir Bytyqi (file photo)
Ilir Bytyqi (file photo)

Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi, all U.S. citizens like Ilir, headed to their parents' homeland, Kosovo, to fight against Serbian forces in the then-autonomous province's battle for independence during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Though the war was over, the three were arrested one night in 1999 after they crossed an unmarked border line into Serbian territory. They were taken into custody and eventually sentenced for illegally crossing the border.

According to Serbian court records, the brothers were immediately arrested again as they left prison and transported to a police training center where they were executed on July 9, 1999.

Two years later, their bodies, and those of dozens of other Kosovars, were discovered on the top of a mass grave in Serbia. The bodies had been burned in a mass fire.

'Adding Injury To The Wounds'

Ilir and his family say court documents from the ICTY show Djordjevic ordered the extrajudicial detention and eventual deaths of the brothers, and then was directly involved in covering up the mass murder of thousands of Kosovars.

"In our own family's case, Djordjevic has admitted to ordering Ylli, Agron, and Mehmetto be detained and taken to the active crime scene at Petrovo Selo -- all without judicial involvement," the family says in a letter to the MICT.

Estimates put the number of missing from the conflict at around 1,650, two-thirds of whom are ethnic Albanians. The remainder are Serbs and Roma.

Vlastimir Djordevic at a court in The Hague in 2011
Vlastimir Djordevic at a court in The Hague in 2011

The early release of Djordjevic, who was sentenced by the ICTY in 2011 for "participating in a joint criminal enterprise in 1999, whose aim was to change the ethnic balance of Kosovo to ensure Serbian dominance in the territory" has raised fears that he will be elevated from criminal to hero in Serbia.

Many critics say Serbian leaders still treat the Balkan wars as a series of civil wars and ignore the role played by Belgrade in fomenting them.

Even worse, says Gjon Bucaj, former head of the Pan-Albanian Federation of America, the release of convicted war criminals in Serbia has often been accompanied by their rehabilitation by authorities in the public eye.

"The release of criminals like this one adds injury to the wounds of their victims who were murdered, massacred, had their throats slit -- many are not accounted for yet after 20 years, thousands were raped, while criminals are treated like heroes and even hold high public positions," he says.

The Bytyqi family has accused Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic of repeatedly breaking promises to resolve the case and of refusing to keep the family up to date with the investigation.

Vucic has rejected the accusations and reiterated on May 28 in parliament his long-standing position that "there is no evidence of who committed the murder" of the brothers.