While adherence to the rule of law is essential in any democracy, it takes on a greater importance in post-conflict settings. Providing justice in cases of egregious, conflict-related crimes is essential to bringing closure to surviving victims or to the friends and family of those lost. It is also important for society to acknowledge what happened by prosecuting those individuals responsible, countering assertions of collective guilt that make reconciliation difficult.
Nowhere in the OSCE region has the provision of justice taken on more importance than in and among the countries of the Western Balkans, where numerous atrocities associated with Yugoslavia’s break-up were committed in the 1990s.
One case of particular importance to the United States is that of the Bytyqi brothers. To date, no one has been successfully prosecuted for the July 1999 execution-style murders of American citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi while they were in the custody of Serbia’s Interior Ministry. While escorting a Romani family to safety in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, the brothers were apprehended by Serbian police and jailed for two weeks for illegally entering the country. Rather than being released, the three were placed in the custody of a special operations unit of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Their bodies were found two years later, with hands bound and gunshot wounds to the back of their heads, buried atop an earlier mass grave of approximately 70 murdered Kosovo civilians.
For nearly two decades, the surviving members of the Bytyqi family have sought to have those responsible for the crime brought to justice. When current Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was prime minister, he assured the family and U.S. officials, including vice-presidents, secretaries of state, and members of Congress, that action would be taken. Years later, however, nobody has been charged—let alone successfully prosecuted—for either ordering or carrying out the murders. The United States has repeatedly raised the case in the OSCE, including at the annual Human Dimension Implementation meeting in Warsaw, Poland.
The leading suspect, former Interior Ministry official Goran “Guri” Radosavljevic, has close connections with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and may be protected from prosecution as a result. While discussing the case at a December 2017 joint briefing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the international tribunal’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz of Belgium noted, “It remains in Serbia very, very difficult to have cases conducted in relation to mid-level or higher-level perpetrators.”
International Criminal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz at the December 2017 Helsinki Commission briefing (also pictured: American University law professor Diane Orentlicher)
At the briefing, Rep. Eliot Engel (NY-16) recalled that President Vucic had promised him and other U.S. officials to bring those responsible to justice soon. “That was a long time ago,” he added, “and it has not yet occurred despite widespread understanding of who was behind the crimes.”
Nemanja Stjepanovic of Serbia’s Humanitarian Law Fund concurred, asserting that Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecutor never accuses “a high-ranking military or police officer or high officials in Serbia, targeting instead “exclusively direct perpetrators of crimes, and from the indictments it is not possible to see their relationship with the state.”
Stjepanovic noted that those Serbian officials who were convicted for egregious crimes by the international court often become part of public life when they return to Serbia after serving their sentences. For example, Vladimir Lazarevic, an army general who served 14 years for crimes committed in Kosovo, became a lecturer at Serbia’s military academy; Nikola Sainovic, also convicted for crimes in Kosovo, is now a leader in the Socialist Party that is part of Serbia’s ruling coalition.
On June 28, 2018, frustration over the lack of progress in the case prompted the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to mark up H.Con.Res. 20, introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01), regarding the execution-style murders of the Bytyqi brothers.
Reacting to the committee action, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic claimed that Serbia remained serious about addressing the case. However, concrete actions would be the clearest proof of Belgrade’s commitment to the rule of law.