Praveen Madhiraju and Tanya Domi look at the as yet unsolved case of the Bytyqi brothers – American citizens killed in the Kosovo War – and what it means for Aleksandar Vučić’s upcoming meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden.
Vice President Biden will soon be hosting Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić in Washington, D.C. Yet this meeting, the first by a prime minister of Serbia in nearly 15 years, threatens to gives Mr. Vučić a pass on Serbian accountability for war crimes committed in 1999 during the war with Kosovo.
Vice President Biden should be especially concerned with Mr. Vučić’s protection of the war criminals who executed the Bytyqi brothers shortly after the Kosovo war in 1999. The three brothers were American citizens and members of the KLA, which Belgrade considers a terrorist organization . Killed while in police custody in Petrovo Selo, their bodies were dumped into a mass grave. Despite Vučić’s promises to solve these murders, not a single arrest warrant has been issued for their killers.
Mr. Vučić’s blind-eye to (and at times outright support for) war crimes and war criminals dates back nearly 20 years and is well documented.
In the days following the Srebrenica massacre, where some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Serb nationalist troops, Mr. Vučić openly advocated for genocide. “You kill one Serb and we will kill one hundred Muslims,” he warned. A few years later, he became the Minister of Information for strongman Slobodan Milošević’s regime, a distinction that earned Mr. Vučić an EU-wide travel ban.
In the mid-2000’s he was an understudy to another ICTY-indictee, Vojislav Šešelj, whom Mr. Vučić chose as the best man at his wedding and his children’s godfather. Milošević (of all people) once criticized Šešelj for being too violent and extreme in his politics.
As late as 2007-2008 Mr. Vučić was still unabashed in his support for various Serb war criminals. He proudly declared that his personal home “will always be a safe house for another ICTY indictee, General Ratko Mladić.” Afterwards, he orchestrated a series of solidarity rallies to protests the arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić.
In 2008, Mr. Vučić professed a change of heart about his past proclivity as a nationalist who openly called for the killing of Muslims.
He has since made conciliatory statements and apologies and visited and hosted the leaders of Kosovo, Albania, and Croatia. On other issues, like the economy and Serbia’s relationship with the European Union, his views have evolved and his government has adopted a number of reforms demanded by the EU accession process.
But on war crimes Prime Minister Vučić still harbors old tendencies.
His multiple broken promises regarding the murders of Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi should be concerning. At the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999, the Bytyqis were tortured and executed by Serbian policemen, who had full knowledge of their American nationality. Two years later, their bodies were found in a mass grave behind a police training facility. To date, there have been no credible prosecutions in the case.
Goran “Guri” Radosavljević, then first commander of the Serbian special police, was in charge of the police unit that kidnapped the Bytyqi brothers and the training facility where they were executed and buried. He and the units he commanded have been implicated in other war crimes and their cover-up operations. Witnesses and documentary evidence confirm Radosavljević ’s direct involvement in these crimes.
Radosavljević has consistently escaped the ICTY’s grasp. He was a big fish but not the biggest. Serbian authorities have never properly investigated him, claiming Radosavljević had interfered with their work and intimidated witnesses. Moreover, they claim a culture of “indifference” among the relevant authorities has obstructed their work.
Publicly, Prime Minister Vučić has pledged not to be indifferent. He has at least twice promised action in the Bytyqi case. Each time, nothing happened. He also promised the Bytyqi family not to seek an official visit to Washington, D.C. until he delivered progress in the case. U.S. officials were present for each of these promises.
Mr. Vučić is not without options. He leads the Serbian Progressive Party, which retains Radosavljević on its Executive Board. At minimum, Mr. Vučić should exile Radosavljević from his party, create a safe space for witnesses, and give prosecutors the green light. Instead, Mr. Vučić is seen publically celebrating Progressive Party milestones on a public stage with Radosavljević .
Many prominent U.S. officials have demanded a better response from Vučić.
U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Michael Kirby has said: “One of my responsibilities is to make sure that justice is done for our citizens . . . . I want this case to be completed. Until that happens, it will continue to burden our relationship.”
More recently, Congressman Lee Zeldin and Eliot Engel introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives that was adopted on May 21st, reiterating that progress in the Bytyqi case should be a significant factor in improving U.S. and Serbian relations. Senators Cardin, McConnell, and McCain have also demanded progress from Serbia. The surviving Long Island-based family has itself made more than fifty trips to Belgrade to ensure that the brothers’ murders are not simply forgotten.
Vice President Biden should not let these efforts go to waste. Prime Minister Vučić has promised progress for three dead Americans before he visits our capital. He should make good on his word.
About the authors:
Tanya Domi is an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Harriman Institute and can be found @tanyadomi.