Former president of Serbia acquitted of war crimes; five others found guilty by Hague tribunal

GRAZ, AUSTRIA – On Thursday, judges at The Hague sentenced former top Serbian officials to prison for committing war crimes during the 1999 war in Kosovo. Although Serbia's former president was acquitted, the conviction of five senior Serb officials should put to rest any questions as to why 715,000 Kosovo Albanians fled their homes during the war: It was the result of a campaign of terror coordinated by Serbian officials, according to the ruling.

Soon after NATO began a bombing campaign on March 24, 1999, Kosovo was overrun by masked thugs, who robbed, raped, and killed ethnic Albanians. Thousands attempted to cross the borders with Montenegro and Macedonia, only to have their vehicles, passports, and identity cards taken by Serb border guards to prevent their return.

The Hague's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia sentenced five senior Serbian officials to a total of 96 years in prison for masterminding the campaign. The judges said, however, that the guilty men were unable to foresee that the specific atrocities that took place, such as murder or rape, would result from their scheme. Serbia's president at the time, Milan Milutinovic, was acquitted of charges.

The defense had argued that the Albanians fled to avoid NATO bombs, or as part of an evacuation organized by the Kosovo Liberation Army, which was fighting a guerrilla war to gain independence from Belgrade.

Mr. Milutinovic, president of Serbia at the time, was found to have neither "de jure" nor "de facto" power to prevent the expulsions. Power over the army's actions, the court said, were controlled by Slobodan Milosovic, then president of Yugoslavia, who died during his trial in late 2000. The convicted men, by contrast, were said to have had a series of meetings to plan the assault.

Three of the guilty were sentenced to 22 years for crimes against humanity and violation of the laws or customs of war: former deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic, Yugoslav Army General Nebojsa Pavkovic, and Serbian police general Sreten Lukic. Yugoslav Army General Vladimir Lazarevic and chief of the general gtaff Dragoljub Ojdanic were found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes, including deportation and forcible transfer. They were each sentenced to 15 years.

Milutinovic, now in his 60s, was Serbia's principal representative at the "Rambouillet" talks, which broke down six days before the NATO bombing started. Even at the time, however, he was seen as little more than a stand-in for Slobodan Milosevic, who was president of Yugoslavia. Milutinovic gave himself up to the Hague tribunal when his term ended in December 2002.

Last year, nine years after NATO forced an end to ethnic cleansing by Serbs, Kosovo became an independent nation. Earlier this month, on the occasion of Kosovo's first anniversary, the Monitor's Bob Marquand visited Europe's youngest nation and sent a dispatch about how "euphoria over freedom has evolved into a sober set of hopes and fears among Kosovars.... The country faces about a 40 percent jobless rate, massive corruption, bitter political rivalries, ongoing water and power cuts, and sharper criticism of international missions as variously overbearing, disinterested, and in need of reform."

Justice might be coming to Kosovo, but its problems are far from over.

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