Over the past fortnight, Montenegrin law enforcement authorities have detained three individuals wanted by Kosovo for their alleged involvement in war crimes against civilians during the 1999 conflict. These arrests have triggered criticism from pro-Serbian politicians within Montenegro. This report provides details of the arrests and the ensuing controversy.
Wanted for war crimes
On Thursday, Montenegrin police apprehended Illir Berisha, a Kosovo citizen, in the coastal town of Herceg Novi. Berisha is the third suspect to be arrested in Montenegro in the past two weeks in connection with alleged Kosovo war crimes. He is wanted by Interpol at the request of UNMIK (the Interpol office in Kosovo) under a ‘red notice’ and is expected to face extradition to Pristina to answer charges related to war crimes against civilians.
Earlier in the month, on October 1, Montenegrin authorities arrested Zivko Vuksanovic, a 62-year-old Serb from Kosovo, who is also sought by Kosovo authorities for war crimes. Similarly, on September 25, they detained 61-year-old Momcilo Bulatovic, another Serb from Kosovo, accused of committing war crimes against civilians in the Pec/Peja region in 1999. The Higher Court in Bijelo Polje ordered both Vuksanovic and Bulatovic into extradition custody.
On October 1, Milan Knežević, a leader of the pro-Serbian ‘For the Future of Montenegro’ party, condemned the Montenegrin authorities’ actions, urging them to halt the arrests of Serbs for alleged war crimes. Knezevic argued that Kosovo is not recognized as a state by pro-Serbian parties in Montenegro and accused the authorities of spreading terror against the Serb community in the country. He also alleged that Montenegro had become a sanctuary for international criminals who manipulated institutions for their own benefit.
Montenegro, as part of Yugoslavia, was involved in the 1990s wars, but it did not witness direct conflict on its territory. Since gaining independence in 2006, Montenegro has conducted only eight trials for war crimes related to conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Notably, most of these trials have involved lower-ranking individuals.
The sole conviction in Montenegro for war crimes committed in Kosovo was that of former Yugoslav Army soldier Vlado Zmajevic, who received a 14-year prison sentence for the murder of four ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo in 1999. This verdict was upheld by Montenegro’s Court of Appeal in December 2019.
European Commission’s assessment
In its most recent progress report on Montenegro in October 2022, the European Commission noted that the country had made limited progress in implementing its war crimes prosecution strategy. The report highlighted ongoing challenges in this area.
The recent arrests of individuals wanted for alleged Kosovo war crimes in Montenegro have provoked criticism from pro-Serbian politicians, reigniting debates about the treatment of Serb suspects and Montenegro’s commitment to prosecuting war crimes. The European Commission’s assessment underscores the continuing challenges faced by Montenegro in this regard.