interview by Dejan ANASTASIJEVIC
VREME: When you accepted this job a year and a half ago, you must have expected that you would meet some resistance. To what degree has that expectation come true?
VUKCEVIC: I was aware that this was a pioneering piece of work. Before that I had prosecuted the Sjeverin case and that recommended me for this job in a way. Since I knew to what degree our police and judicial organs were prepared to take up the issue of war crimes, I considered it my patriotic duty to show the international community that we were capable. We have to relieve the Serbian people of collective responsibility by establishing the individual responsibility of those who have been hiding behind the people and playing some kind of heroes, when in fact they have committed serious crimes. I knew there would be obstructions, but I did not expect that there would be so much. I have to say that the political climate is more hostile now than it was when I began this job. That can be seen from some articles and statements by some people in the media, and also from some statements that can be heard in the Parliament.
There are also problems with institutions, especially the Ministry of the Interior (Police). In July the law establishing a special police unit for work on war crimes was adopted, but that still has not happened. One of the reasons for this is that the team has not been formed, among other reasons because it is hard for police officers to make the decision to apply for it. It means they will do a dangerous and difficult job, and there is no provision for them to receive any greater salaries or benefits than, say, their colleagues who direct traffic. It is also unpleasant that in the job they would run into many colleagues who would appear as perpetrators. Another problem is that the police do not want to take initiative on the question of war crimes. I should say that they do whatever we instruct them to do, but if we do not instruct them they do not do anything on their own. And they ought to.
Have there been direct threats against you and your assistants?
No, if you don't count the fact that in Novi Sad both the private and official car of my deputy Dusan Knezevic were smashed up. The greater pressure comes from various political centers of power who give themselves the right to assess whom I prosecute and how.
We also face financial pressures. The Ministry decreased our budget by 13 per cent, passed us over for three pay raises, and it is only thanks to the understanding of the Finance Ministry that we are able to advance our work through international projects.
Unfortunately, the special prosecutor has greater credibility with international factors than with domestic ones, of which some would like us not to do our job at all, and some that we do only what the West dictates. We will not give in to those pressures, but will work according to the law and justice.
The Ovcara case is the first big war crimes case processed by our courts.
Yes, it is interesting how that came to pass. The Hague Tribunal was unsuccessfully searching for the perpetrators of the killings at Ovcara for years. Then Carla del Ponte gave the state prosecutor at the time some eight boxes of materials, and I, as his first deputy, looked through it and I was ready initiate the judicial procedure in this case. When I was chosen for this position, we began an investigation and first we had four, then nine, then nineteen indictees, and now we have seventeen because we gave two the protected witness status. We will see how the verdict goes, but that trial is being carried out according to the highest standards, and we have been recognized for that by Carla del Ponte and by other international actors. However, Ovcara is just one of a large number of cases we are working on, but the public does not know about all of them because the cases are secret in the discovery phase. I can tell you that we took over some twenty cases of war crimes just from the military courts.
The public would certainly like to know how far you have got with Batajnica and the corpses from the freezer trucks. What has happened with that?
In Batajnica people who were killed in mass executions in several places in Kosovo were found. So far in this case we have interviewed about 200 witnesses. I cannot give details, but to identify the perpetrators we would have to get access to witnesses who are in Kosovo. That has been a big problem because we do not have access there. Just recently, for the first time, after intensive contacts with UNMIK and pressure that Carla Del Ponte put on NATO to guarantee our security, we got the possibility to go and interview ethnic Albanian witnesses. In fact this is the first time since the Kumanovo agreement that representatives of the Serbian judiciary have been able to conduct an investigation on the territory of Kosovo. We got some information about perpetrators that we did not have before and now the investigative phase is near an end. It might be interesting that the costs of our stay in Pristina and the costs for the witnesses were covered by the Hague Tribunal's office, because we did not have funding for that.
There is also a case against Ramush Haradinaj and his close associate Anton Lekaj.
Against Haradinaj there is now an investigation for war crimes against the civilian population. Anton Lekaj was arrested this past summer in Montenegro for auto theft, but we have discovered that in 1998 and 1999 he was a member of the military police of KLA and was close to Haradinaj; then that he participated in war crimes against civilians. That is about the case in the Hotel Pastrik in Djakovica which got a good deal of press coverage. In the meantime the investigation has expanded to include seven more criminal acts. I can say that we have established excellent cooperation with the local court in Berane and with the local police, which has helped us to locate witnesses. The special prosecutor's office cooperates directly with the courts and the prosecutors in the region, for example in Croatia. Unfortunately, I must say that in this work we have not received any help from the Ministry of Justice, nor in several other cases. Minister Zoran Stojkovic, from the time he took office until today, has not made any attempt to contact us, nor has he shown any interest in what the prosecutor's office does, ignoring public criticisms directed toward us.
One of those criticisms has been that you are inactive, that is, as minister Stojkovic said, "you do not want to go to trial"...
That is a disinformation. When the American ambassador for war crimes Pierre-Richard Prosper was in Belgrade some time ago, he asked me whether we could try the four generals - Lukic, Pavkovic, Lazarevic and Djordjevic - on the basis of the Hague indictment. I told him that based on the law at that time that would be impossible, because the Hague indictment would be treated like a criminal complaint here, and it is a long path from complaint to indictment. Somebody misinterpreted that to Stojkovic, saying that we did not want to try the generals here at all, but thought that they had to be tried in the Hague, and that is what provoked his reaction.
Finally, starting with this week, thanks to the newest changes in the law, documents from the Hague can be used before domestic courts, and that will make it possible for a great number of cases to be prosecuted here and it will meaningfully advance the real two-way cooperation which the prosecutor's office is developing with the Tribunal.
The Tribunal will now, as a part of its exit strategy, transfer several cases to local courts in the region. Do you think that you will be able to deal with so many cases?
We are ready to accept them. At the moment I have four deputies, but I can hire seven more if there is a need. Also, we are taking over a big case now, the first one that the Tribunal has given to us. It is a major case about which I cannot speak publicly and the only problem is that a majority of the witnesses are in other states. We are already working on it.
There has been public speculation that Mrksic, Sljivancanin and Radic could be tried in Croatia.
I categorically assert that that will not happen. The new changes in the law allow us to try all cases which the Tribunal transfers to us, and if the Hague transfers the case of the "Vukovar three" to anyone, it will be to Belgrade.
Does that mean that you could prosecute Seselj as well?
Absolutely, there is no difference. He and the others should be tried in the country. We have been requesting that the Tribunal transfer responsibility for the "Vukovar three" and Seselj to us, because they were arrested here, that is, they voluntarily surrendered.