(New York) - Serbia's recent arrest of nine men suspected of killing 41 Kosovo Albanians civilians in 1999 is a welcome step toward justice for the victims, Human Rights Watch said today. The nine men have not been identified.
On March 13, 2010, the Serbian war crimes prosecutor announced that police had arrested the nine men in connection with killings of ethnic Albanians in the village of Cuska (Qyshk in Albanian) on May 14, 1999, during the war in Kosovo. In total, 26 men are under investigation for murder and theft, the prosecutor said.
"After 11 years, the Serbian authorities have taken a positive step towards justice for this horrible crime," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Now it's vital they continue the investigation so that the suspects can be held to account in a fair trial."
Human Rights Watch published a detailed report on the Cuska case in October 1999 and has repeatedly called for the perpetrators to face justice. The report, "A Village Destroyed," also documents the killing of 19 Kosovo Albanians in nearby Zahac (Zahaq) and 10 in Pavljan (Pavlan) on the same day.
Human Rights Watch's investigation found that in Cuska, Serbian security forces arrived in the village around 7:30 a.m. on May 14, 1999, separated the women and children from the men, systematically stole private property, and destroyed identification papers. The forces then took three groups of about ten men into three different houses and opened fire with automatic weapons. In one of the houses, a gunman finished off several of the fallen men with pistol shots. Each house was then set on fire and left to burn. In each of the three houses, one man survived.
Witnesses to the attack identified in photographs two members of the Serbian security forces they claim were present in Cuska on May 14 - Zvonimir Cvetkovic and Srecko Popovic - and a third who was present in Zahac, Slavisa Kastratovic. None of these men are known to have opened fire on the ethnic Albanian men.
Witnesses also identified in photographs Nebojsa Minic, who was implicated in the murder of six ethnic Albanians in the city of Pec (Peja) on June 12, 1999. Minic died in Argentina in 2005.
According to the Serbian war crimes prosecutor, the nine arrested men belonged to a paramilitary group called the Jackals (Shakali in Serbian), as well as the police reserves and territorial defense. They are all suspected of engaging in "a campaign of terror that included armed attacks and individual acts of violence against civilians, as well as threats of violence, murders and destruction of civilian property." The crimes were intended to "bring terror to local Albanian residents so as to cause them to flee their homes and move to the Republic of Albania." The prosecutor did not release the names of the arrested men or those under investigation.
According to media reports, the nine men will be held on remand for up to 30 days. Two suspects remain at large in Serbia and 15 others are outside the country.
Serbia established its War Crimes Chamber in 2003 to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia since 1991. The chamber has made significant progress toward accountability for wartime abuses in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia, despite limited funding, inadequate political support, and little public awareness of its work. In June 2009, the chamber sentenced four members of the "Scorpions" paramilitary unit to prison terms of between 15 and 20 years for crimes against Kosovo Albanian civilians committed in 1999.
Serbia's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) remains mixed. Despite improved cooperation, Belgrade has yet to arrest the tribunal's most wanted suspect, Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, indicted for genocide at Srebrenica, or fellow indicted suspect Goran Hadzic. According to the tribunal's prosecutor, both are believed to be "within reach" of Serbian authorities.