The return to Macedonia from the Hague of four war crimes cases against Albanian rebels is expected to raise ethnic tensions and pose a steep challenge for the judiciary.
The justice minister, Mihajlo Manevski, last week announced the cases will make their way back to local courts, starting in January.
The cases were launched by the local judiciary but were transferred to The Hague at the tribunal`s request.
But in April 2005, the Hague court resolved not to continue the cases and ordered that they be transferred back to the region.
Macedonia’s previous government agreed with the ruling, partly because the cases involved many ex-rebels who had since re-launched themselves as successful politicians in the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI. Moreover, the DUI was then part of the government coalition.
But the government has since changed and the DUI is now in the opposition. As a result, there are fears that the cases will be seen as an attack on the DUI in general and even stir up an Albanian revolt.
If the courts dismiss the indictments, on the other hand, this will anger ethnic Macedonians, and fuel their perceptions that justice is selective.
While ethnic Albanians argue that no trial can take place, referring to the an amnesty law from 2001, which exempts all involved in the ethnic conflict, Macedonians insist the legislation does not exculpate those suspected of war crimes.
All four cases refer to acts committed by members of the then ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, NLA, which staged an uprising in 2001.
The one case from the 2001 conflict that the Hague tribunal did take on board concerned ethnic Macedonians. This concerned former interior minister Ljube Boskovski and police officer Johan Tarculovski accused of killing Albanian civilians in Ljuboten on August 12, 2001.
“The return of the cases poses a huge challenge for the already politicised Macedonian judiciary,” said Nenad Markovic, of the Institute for Democracy in Skopje.
“The fact that for most citizens the judicial system in the country has no legitimacy because of its inefficiency, corruption and strong political influence will be used to show these cases are illegitimate,” he added.
At the same time, Markovic predicted an emotional reaction among Albanians, “The cases involve top politicians and may deconstruct some of the people presented as ‘heroes of 2001’ within the Albanian community.”
All but one suspect are leading members of the DUI, which grew out of the former NLA.
Analyst Iso Rusi agrees that the cases may cause a good deal of trouble, especially the fourth, concerning the entire rebel leadership.
“The case concerning the NLA leadership practically means that more than 90 per cent of the DUI membership could be arrested,” he said. “Do you think that this could take place peacefully and without any resistance?”
Gjorgji Marjanovic, a criminal law professor at the Skopje University, agreed. “There are bound to be tensions,” he said. “The return of the four cases terrifies the members of the DUI.”
But Petar Atanasov, of the Institute for Political, Legal and Sociological Relations, is less pessimistic.
“This is a sensitive issue but Macedonia has a stable political system and I don’t expect any return to the situation in 2001,” he said.
The six-month conflict between the NLA and the security forces ended with the signing of the Framework Agreement in Ohrid, obliging the government to concede a package of rights to the Albanian minority.
A key part of the peace agreement was the amnesty law, adopted in October 2001 after the NLA laid down its weapons. This offered freedom from prosecution for all NLA members but did not exempt those suspected of war crimes.
The four cases refer to the torture of five workers in the Mavrovo Construction Company, the sabotage of the water supply to the town of Kumanovo and the involvement of the NLA leadership in a series of violent incidents, as well as the kidnapping of Macedonians in the Tetovo area.
Balkan Insight has learned that the first case in January will be against Sajdula Duraku, former NLA commander and now a senior DUI official, accused of closing off the water supply to Kumanovo in the summer of 2001.
The next concerns Daut Rexhepi-Leka, suspected of involvement in Trebos, a site where murdered civilians were allegedly buried in a mass grave. He is now a deputy in parliament for the Democratic Party of the Albanians, DPA, which is part of the government.
The third case deals with NLA members who severely beat five workers of the Mavrovo construction company on the Skopje-Tetovo road.
The last, and most controversial, case is against the “NLA leadership”. This case accuses the ten leaders of the NLA, all today in the DUI, including its leader, Ali Ahmeti, of command responsibility for war crimes, such as a massacre of soldiers and police officers near Vejce.
Macedonia has already made preparations to accept the four cases. The ministry of justice says a law on cooperation with the Hague court has been prepared, and they are awaiting the opinion of the OSCE and Hague prosecutors.
Secondly, international training is ongoing for the judges selected to handle the cases. A courtroom is almost ready and the investigative prison in Shutka has been set up with video surveillance.
One of the main points of contention will be interpretations of the 2001 amnesty law, Article 1 of which says, “Amnesty does not refer to persons who have violated international humanitarian law”.
Stavre Dzikov, former public prosecutor at the time of the conflict, insists this means an amnesty does not cover the persons in the cases sent back from the tribunal.
“Why did the Hague prosecution take them on, if they were covered by the Law on Amnesty?” he asked.
The DUI disagrees, maintaining that those who want to continue the cases have a hidden agenda.
“I don’t believe these four cases will be reopened, as in that case we would be running in circles,” said Xhevad Ademi, a senior DUI official told Balkan Insight.
“What is the logic of opening a procedure when there was an amnesty for them?”
But Markovic says ethnic Macedonians will see the trials as a necessary payback for the Boskovski case.
“Having in mind that Boskovski and Tarculovski were swiftly sent to The Hague, ethnic Macedonians need to see these cases resolved to restore balance in the perception of what happened in 2001,” he said.
He admits this will have repercussions, however. “Some of the accused belong to the political establishment, so their humiliation in court proceedings will have a great symbolic meaning, negative for Albanians, positive for Macedonians,” he went on.
According to Rusi, the dilemma could be easily resolved in The Hague, as the future of the cases depends on the conditions under which they are returned.
Rusi points to the experience of courts in Croatia, which have obtained permission to try tribunal cases, but according to the Hague court’s rules.
In the meantime, the DUI’s criticisms have fueled suspicions that the Macedonian judiciary does not have the capacity to process the cases.
The DUI vice president and former NLA commander, Rafiz Aliti, remains highly critical of the quality of Macedonia’s judges.
“It is quite clear the judiciary in Macedonia is completely incapable and that we can’t have faith in it,” he said.
In that context, he returned to a notorious case concerning seven Pakistanis who were killed by the Macedonian police in 2002. The courts were widely criticised when they simply released four members of the police, accused of killings.
Apart from ordering international training for the judges, the Macedonian government has requested increased OSCE access and monitoring of the four Hague cases, in order to reduce doubts about the judges’ competence.
But the DUI sees these measures as additional proof of the weak capacity of the judiciary. “If the judiciary has to be monitored from abroad, then we must recognise it is not prepared for the cases,” said Rafiz Aliti.
But Nenad Markovic says the watchful eye of the international community ought to be seen as a guarantee of good conduct.
“The only way these cases will be justly solved is if we are under constant pressure from the international community,” he said.
“Our judiciary has shown repeatedly that it lacks capacity, especially when it comes to politically sensitive issues. The solution is in the watchful eye of Erwan Fuere [EU ambassador] and Gillian Milovanovic [US ambassador in Skopje].”