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Haradinaj Release Underscores Belgrade's -- And Region's -- Denial Of 'Dark Past'

  • Gordana Knezevic

Kosovo's former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj at his court hearing on April 27. (file photo)

After more than three months in detention, Ramush Haradinaj is free to go home.

The 48-year-old former Kosovar prime minister and onetime Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander was arrested in France on January 4 after an Interpol notice based on a Serbian warrant alleging war crimes.

Now a court in Colmar, in northeastern France, has rejected Belgrade's extradition request on the grounds that Serbian officials failed to provide sufficient evidence of Haradinaj's culpability.

"I am, as of this moment, a free man, and I hope I will be able to return to Kosovo today," Haradinaj told reporters outside the courthouse.

A number of international voices had weighed in to call for Haradinaj's release ahead of the decision.

U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (Democrat, New York) was among the first to react to Haradinaj's detention in early January, calling it "unacceptable that Serbia is abusing Interpol to target" Haradinaj.

Engel added: "This isn't about the rule of law or justice. International tribunals have acquitted Mr. Haradinaj twice. This action only foments tensions and increases the likelihood of future conflict."

Worrying Indictments

During a recent visit to Kosovo, Croatian ex-President Stipe Mesic expressed hope that Haradinaj would be freed. Mesic -- who met with members of Haradinaj's party, the Alliance For The Future Of Kosovo (AAK), during that trip -- added that Croatians were closely following the Haradinaj case. With the experience of prominent Bosnians foremost in their minds, others are worried they may be the next to find themselves named in secret indictments issued by Serbian authorities.

Former Bosnian Presidency member Ejup Ganic was arrested at Heathrow Airport in March 2010 while on an official trip, and it took him almost four months to convince U.K. authorities that a trial in Serbia could be compromised by political aims.

A year later, retired Bosnian Army General Jovo Divjak was detained in Vienna, on the basis of a Serbian warrant, before an extradition request was dismissed.

For Haradinaj, the French case marks the second time he has been detained, following brief custody at the hands of Slovenian police in 2015.

So what's the purpose of such warrants, which are routinely dismissed by European courts?

Shifting Responsibility? Justifying Failure?

In 2003, Serbia passed a law giving its state prosecutors and courts jurisdiction over any war crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, now divided among seven independent states. That legislation was controversial, as it was tantamount to a Serbian declaration that Belgrade regarded itself as the region's policeman.

Meanwhile, the warrants appeared designed to impress the Serbian public -- by seeking to shift responsibility to others for wartime atrocities, on one hand, and by attempting to justify Serbia's failure to achieve its territorial goals in the wars of the 1990s by highlighting the perceived criminality of those it was fighting in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo, on the other.

But the Serbian secret warrants, so far, do not appear to be targeting actual war criminals.

The policy could therefore expose Belgrade to charges of hypocrisy. For more than a year now, Serbia has had no chief war-crimes prosecutor; it also has a dubious record when it comes to dealing with its own war criminals. Serbia spent years protecting two of its most-wanted war-crime suspects, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, from international justice. (Karadzic was finally extradited in 2008 and convicted of genocide and nine more of the 11 charges he was facing. Mladic was apprehended by Serbian forces in 2011 and currently faces charges in The Hague including genocide and crimes against humanity, in addition to ordering snipers to target civilians in Sarajevo.)

Crimes committed by Serbian forces in Kosovo have also gone largely unpunished. The Belgrade-based Fund for Humanitarian Law has issued a dossier with the names of 110 individuals suspected of destroying evidence of crimes perpetrated during the Kosovo War. The concealment of the bodies of slain Albanians is said to have been a major part of this purportedly state-sanctioned operation.

The Fund for Humanitarian Law alleges that the plan to destroy evidence of crimes was hatched by the Serbian government as early as March 1999, and involved both the Yugoslav police and army. The study concludes with an expression of regret that no one has ever been held accountable in Serbian courts for this destruction of evidence.

Regional Problem

Critics call it part of a general pattern of failing to hold public figures in Serbia to account for their roles in alleged atrocities -- or worse, elevating those same suspected war criminals to political or other positions of prominence.

A case in point is Goran Radosavljevic Guri, a former commander of the Serbian special-forces unit known as the Gendarmerie and currently a member of the executive committee of the governing Serbian Progressive Party. His alleged role in the killing of the Bytyqi brothers -- three Albanian-Americans who fought in Kosovo before they were killed execution-style -- has never been investigated.

Nikola Sainovic, convicted by The Hague tribunal of war crimes against Albanian civilians, was immediately appointed to the main board of the Socialist Party of Serbia upon his release from detention in 2015.

"The problem," Vesna Rakic-Vodinelic, a law professor at Belgrade's UNION University, told RFE/RL, "is that this society as a whole, and above all its government bodies, have almost never, with very few exceptions, shown any readiness to face up to the darkest parts of our recent history, such as confronting the guilt of high-ranking members of the police and armed forces for war crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, including war crimes in Kosovo and their concealment."

While it might be tempting to view all this as a Serbian failure -- given its central role in three Balkan conflicts, in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo -- it's also a regional problem.

After serving two-thirds of his 15-year sentence in a Croatian prison for war crimes, Fikret Abdic was welcomed back to his Bosnian hometown as a hero. He was elected mayor of Velika Kladusa in October 2016.

Likewise, Croatia's Branimir Glavas was twice reelected to parliament during a trial in Zagreb that resulted in his conviction for war crimes against Serbian civilians in his hometown of Osijek during the 1991-95 war. After serving five years of his sentence, Glavas also got a hero's welcome on his return to Osijek.

"We condemn all war crimes," professor Rakic-Vodinelic said, invoking the words of Croatian journalist Viktor Ivancic to capture a widely held attitude in many parts of the former Yugoslavia toward war crimes, "but we celebrate our boys who committed them."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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