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Crisis in Yugoslavia | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Pristina Court Focuses on Robbery and Theft, Not Massacres

Justice: Official says law still protects people. Outside, Serbian forces empty neighborhoods of ethnic Albanians.

April 05, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — As Kosovo's top justice official, Jovica Jovanovic is eager to point out that the law still protects people, even though the streets outside his window are almost deserted because of men in uniform.

He offers statistics to offset the horror of soldiers and police working with civilian gunmen to empty whole neighborhoods of ethnic Albanians in Pristina, the provincial capital.

On Friday and Saturday, 48 people appeared in Pristina's civilian courts on charges of stealing cars, robbery and other acts of theft, according to Kosovo's justice secretary.

Jovanovic keeps track of Pristina's military courts too. And they were also busy over those two days, dealing with 32 accused, just one of them an army officer.

Two were Yugoslav civilians, one of them charged with entering a prohibited military area. The other stood accused of spying for the United States.

As for the men in uniform, one was charged with murder, nine others with robbery, two with stealing cars and 14 with smaller acts of theft or for being absent without leave.

One soldier was accused of harassing a younger recruit, while another was charged with stealing weapons. One appeared in front of the military tribunal on the charge of "creating general danger." Only one was accused of refusing to execute an order.

The crime of genocide did not appear on the list.

Jovanovic will not give details of any of the allegations involved, but it's hard to imagine that they amount to indictments as serious as the ones that international war crimes investigators are building against Serbian officials.

What may be obvious to foreign viewers watching and listening to Kosovo Albanian refugees describe massacres and mass deportations amounts to silly propaganda to most Serbs.

Some are in a state of national denial, while others are doing their best to cover their tracks in case the North Atlantic Treaty Organization doesn't surrender in the war with Yugoslavia.

In the meantime, carrying out justice in Kosovo is left to men like Jovanovic.

"Military and civilian courts are working quickly and effectively, and they will not allow anyone to profit from the situation," Jovanovic said through an interpreter. "And those who attempt to profit from the situation will be quickly and effectively punished according to the law."

As one of their tasks, several police officers working in shifts spend each day and night guarding the house of Ibrahim Rugova, whom Kosovo Albanians twice chose as their leader in unofficial elections.

But NATO repeated at its daily briefing in Brussels on Sunday that the police aren't really protecting Rugova. They actually have him under house arrest.

Citing what it called Rugova contacts who reported to a NATO member country, the alliance said a state TV report last week showing Rugova with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the capital, Belgrade, was actually video dredged up from two years ago.

Yet the day before Rugova is said to have signed a brief statement calling for a political solution in Kosovo, a small group of foreign journalists allowed to see him in Pristina reported a similar message from him.

A foreign reporter who renewed a request for an interview with Rugova on Sunday was told that he was still in Belgrade holding talks with Milosevic.

It's all part of being through the looking glass in Pristina--where forced deportations of ethnic Albanians are officially escorted evacuations, and thug justice is law and order.

It is now accepted as a fact of life here that it's not safe to be on the streets after 3 p.m., even though the sun doesn't set until three hours later.

At 4:25 p.m. Sunday, two rifle shots broke the calm in the city's center, and it was an unremarkable event.

For many of the ethnic Albanians left behind in Pristina after several days of "ethnic cleansing," it isn't safe to go out at all. Some rely on Serbian friends to secretly get food for them from the few shops still open.

There were a lot fewer police, soldiers and armored vehicles on the streets of Kosovo's capital Sunday, perhaps because the weather was improving and NATO said it was about to start striking many more targets.

Some soldiers and police have simply switched to stolen cars, either because Milosevic's military doesn't have enough vehicles or because the occupants hope NATO will think they're civilians.

Because several of the stolen cars have no license plates and are seen driving around Pristina every day, it is an open question why police don't stop them and add to Jovanovic's crime statistics.

The police did find time to follow a foreign journalist Sunday as he walked through a district of east Pristina cleared of all ethnic Albanians, whose homes and shops were widely looted.

Outside the broken front door of the Dea Hotel, once the main hotel owned by Kosovo Albanians in the capital, an empty black vinyl sheath, the sort used to carry combat knives, lay among the muddy boot prints on the steps.

Within three minutes of being stopped briefly by a police officer driving a pickup truck marked with the red cross of a hospital vehicle, the journalist was picked up by two other officers cruising in a luxury, four-wheel-drive Pajero.

He was ordered into the back seat beside two crates of canned Fanta and then delivered to a central police station, the first of two stops where his passport and other documents were scrutinized.

Before the journalist was released about 20 minutes later, an officer with three gold stars on his uniform came for a closer look at the foreigner.

He put his two index fingers together and rubbed them back and forth to demonstrate friction. "NATO and me," the officer said, and then scowled as he closed the door and ordered the police to drive off.

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