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People pay their last respects to the Bytyqi brothers -- Ylli, Agron and Mehmet -- whose bound bodies were found in a mass grave in 2001.

It's a crime that won't go away.

During the past 17 years, Serbia has changed governments, presidents, and war-crimes prosecutors. But the 1999 killings of the Bytyqi brothers -- three twentysomething Albanian-Americans who left the United States to fight in Kosovo and whose bodies were found, bound execution-style, in a mass grave -- remains unresolved.

According to Praveen Madhiraju, a legal adviser to the Bytyqi family, the case is likely to be raised during U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden's August 16 visit to Belgrade, probably behind closed doors. That likelihood has brought the issue back into focus among Serbian media.

"In the Bytyqi case, Serbian political leaders have repeatedly failed to deliver on promises made to U.S. officials," Madhiraju told RFE/RL's Balkan Service via Skype.

When asked by reporters about the case on July 13, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that some people in Serbia might wonder "why we should investigate, if the victims were Albanian." But he added that "we should not cover up any crime" and made yet another pledge that the Bytyqi brothers' case would find its closure.

The bodies of 21-year-old Mehmet, 23-year-old Agron, and 25-year-old Ylli Bytyqi were found in 2001 in a mass grave in Petrovo Selo, near Kladovo, in eastern Serbia.

The brothers are believed to have been killed at a training compound in Petrovo Selo of the Serbian secret police in July 1999, shortly after the end of the war in Kosovo.

They had fought in the Atlantic Brigade, a volunteer branch of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that reportedly included hundreds of Albanian-Americans. All three were Chicago-born New York residents and U.S. citizens.

Soon after the July 1999 peace agreement that ended the Kosovo war, the three reportedly promised to escort several Romany neighbors to join relatives in Serbia. But when they crossed an unmarked boundary near the Merdare border crossing, they were detained by Serbian police for illegally entering what was then Yugoslavia and sentenced to 15 days in jail.

Near the end of their sentences, they were reportedly taken to the police training compound and held in a warehouse. On the evening of July 9, 1999, they are believed to have been bound with wire and driven to a garbage dump, where they were summarily executed with shots to the back of the neck.

The Serbian war-crimes prosecutor indicted two police officers suspected of transporting the brothers from Prokuplje prison to Petrovo Selo, but both men were acquitted in 2012. During the trial, the defendants claimed that they had received the order to drive the brothers to Petrovo Selo from Vlastimir Djordjevic, Serbia's assistant interior minister at the time.

Goran Radosavljević
Goran Radosavljević

The initial investigation into the killings, launched by the Serbian war crimes prosecutor with assistance from the United States, focused on three people: Djordjevic; Vlajko Stojiljkovic, a former interior minister who committed suicide in 2002; and Goran Radosavljevic, the former commander of a special police unit who was in charge of the Petrovo Selo training center.

Djordjevic was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague for participation in the 1999 Serb crackdown on Kosovar Albanians. After the war, he went into hiding in Russia but was arrested in Montenegro in June 2007. He was later sentenced by The Hague tribunal to 18 years in prison for war crimes committed in Kosovo.

Radosavljevic is now a retired police special forces commander but remains active in politics as a member of the executive board of Serbia's ruling Progressive Party. He has been questioned in relation to the Bytyqi brothers' deaths, but no indictment has been issued. He denies any involvement in the crime.

In the decade since the investigation began, a number of witnesses have claimed that they were threatened to prevent them from testifying. One witness, Miroslav Mitrovic, died in Kraljevo, in Serbia, in 2004, where his family lives in fear of revenge.

Despite the fact that the crime is thought to have taken place while the Bytyqi brothers were in Serbian police custody, it remains unclear who killed them or who ordered the killings.

Milica Kostic
Milica Kostic

Milica Kostic, head of the legal department at Belgrade-based Center for Humanitarian Law, told RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau in an interview on August 15:

"The case cannot be resolved without addressing the wider issues [related to the Serbian state and the army's conduct of the war in Kosovo]. Three individuals were detained. Someone drove them, someone fed them, and moved them from one location to another. [We know that] they ended up in a mass grave.... There were clearly more people involved. The U.S. will continue to ask questions, and that may sour relations between Belgrade and Washington. [U.S. pressure] may eventually force Serbia to give up one of its retired police commanders. But we have to ask for more. We should demand to know precisely how that state functioned, how it was possible for a crime of this nature to occur. After all, the chief of staff of our armed forces is suspected of a war crime."

We would probably never have known about the Bytyqi brothers if they had not had U.S. passports, underscoring questions about how many others suffered a similar fate and how many such killers will go unpunished.

Kostic is aware of claims that the Bytyqi case is an exception, but argues that it points to systemic problems.

"The case is exceptional, but the reasons why it has not been resolved in court are not exceptional. This is a type of case that Serbia does not want to deal with. Radosavljevic is a person against whom Serbia does not want to lay charges. In this country, we do not take high officials to court. Any investigation in which members of the police or the army are implicated faces obstructions of justice. There is no political will to open up the archives of the Ministry of Defense, or of the Ministry of Interior. People are afraid to speak out. There is a code of silence.

"This case is also a problem because it involves mass graves; there were more than 900 bodies of Albanians in [such] graves. No government -- neither this one, nor any of the previous ones -- wants to deal with the issue of mass graves."

With Biden's visit looming, the proverbial passing of the buck began in Serbia -- although it did not appear to be connected to any sense of justice over the deaths of the three brothers' deaths. On August 11, Dragan Jocic, the former Serbian interior minister, publicly called on Radosavljevic to help solve the Bytyqi case "because the U.S. administration is putting pressure on Serbia over the issue." For his part, Radosavljevic has accused Jocic of responsibility in the setting alight of the U.S. Embassy during protests in Belgrade in 2008 against Kosovar independence. It appears that as far as both men are concerned, the problem is not what happened to the Bytyqis but the fact that the United States is demanding an investigation.

The Bytyqi case implicates more than just formerly prominent -- and still influential -- individuals. As Kostic points out, it is also a signpost to other graves and other crimes whose perpetrators were deeply embedded in the state and military apparatus of the late President Slobodan Milosevic's state. A culture of impunity still prevails in Serbia, and there is little desire among politicians to confront the pall still being cast by the 1990s.

Public administration expert Ana Brnabic, 40, is set to be sworn in this week as the first openly gay minister in any Balkan country.

Ana Brnabic is making waves. She is one of six new ministers in the Serbian government, but has been getting all the public attention, as she is poised to become the first openly gay minister to serve in any Balkan country.

The 40-year-old Brnabic speaks English and Russian. She was educated in the United States and United Kingdom. An expert in public administration, she established the National Alliance for Local Economic Development (NALED) in 2006. Until her appointment to the Serbian government she served as the president of the executive board of NALED. Thanks to her position at NALED, she worked as a coordinator of the USAID program for the economic development of local communities in Serbia, which meant that she worked closely with the government. In 2013, she was declared businesswoman of the year in Serbia.

She has made headlines around the world, however, as she prepares to be sworn in this week as the first openly gay minister in Serbia. She has no party affiliation. This is just one out of many tweets saluting the decision to appoint Brnabic:

Speaking to reporters during a parliamentary recess on August 9, Brnabic expressed hopes that the public attention would eventually fade after she is sworn in.

"Hopefully this will blow over in three or four days and then I won't be known as 'the gay minister.' I'll be known as the minister of public administration and local government," she told reporters.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who made the appointment, is being singled out for praise by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Serbia.

According to the Belgrade based Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), choosing Brnabic as a minister is historic because it raises the hope that Serbia can become a society in which everyone has equal opportunity. "It's important to recognize the skills and qualities of people in high positions regardless of their sexual orientation," the GSA said in a statement.

Important Step

Among the first to react was Boris Milicevic, the first LGBT activist to enter politics in Serbia. He is a high-level official in the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the junior partner of Prime Minister Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in the new government. He sees the Brnabic appointment as important for the entire LGBT community.

"I hope that the prime minister's decision will encourage more LGBT people to take part in politics, as well as encourage many who already hold positions in the government to come out," Milicevic said.

Serbia is still struggling to become a more inclusive society. Homophobia is widespread, as in any Balkan society. Belgrade has been under pressure since the start of its EU-accession talks to improve its protection of minorities, including the LGBT community.

Memories of the violence surrounding the 2010 Pride Parade are still fresh. Hard-line nationalists and radicals attacked participants and clashed with police, wounding 150 people. Because of security concerns, the parade was cancelled for the next three years. Last year, the Pride Parade went ahead without incident, although there were more police officers than members of the LGBT community in the streets.

There are still many influential voices preaching discrimination. When Serbia was hit by heavy floods in the summer of 2014, Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej proclaimed the disaster a clear warning from God just as Belgrade was getting ready to host another pride parade, which in the Patriarch's view was "something that is against God and the law of nature."

Asked about the Brnabic appointment, Vucic claimed that he was simply being faithful to his promise to put together a government that would deliver results.

"Her personal choices do not interest me, she is welcome in the Serbian government", the prime minister told a press conference on August 9. "I told her that what interests me is the work that she can do."

He had at least one more surprise for journalists and the public, promising that he will be more open to criticism in his second term in the office. Are these signs that we can expect to see a new Vucic?

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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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