Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2015

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Justice the Kosovo Way

It was 8:15 in the morning as I entered the European Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) compound in Mitrovica, Kosovo, and I had before me a day of testimony in a trial that had — in typical Kosovo fashion — dragged on for several weeks with not more than two or three days of trial in any week and not even every week. The slow pace of trial had been extremely frustrating for me as an American judge, but my two European judicial colleagues on the trial panel weren’t exercised by the glacial pace of the proceedings. At home in Oregon, this would have been a four- or five-day trial at the most. Here it would be at least that many weeks. Oh well, I thought, I am only here for a year, and I am not going to succeed in changing the local legal culture by myself.

I made a quick stop at the BreakTime, a small café and coffee shop on base, picked up my morning latte (no fancy stuff here — foamed milk and coffee is all you get) and headed to the office to get organized.

The office for the 14 of us judges is a building constructed by bolting together a collection of what look like seagoing steel shipping containers with windows and slapping a roof over the top. We worked two judges to a module so you had to find a way to, if not like, at least tolerate your officemate. Fortunately, my fellow container-mate was an excellent judge from Portugal, who had just arrived from a similar assignment in East Timor.

Even though trial was supposed to commence at 10 a.m., I didn’t have a lot of time to get organized; we would be leaving for the courthouse at 9:30, which meant that we would have to start loading the vehicles by 9:15 at the latest. That is just one of the interesting aspects of judging in Mitrovica.

A Divided City

Mitrovica is a divided city. It is divided both by the Ibar River and by what that river represents. What the river represents is the dividing line between the rest of Kosovo — 90 percent ethnic Albanian — and the 22 square miles north across the Ibar and up to the Serbian border, which is about 90 percent ethnic Serbian. Through a huge blunder as part of the end of the 1999 war in the Balkans, this Serbian enclave in Kosovo was allowed to remain and has been a festering sore since then. The Serbs desperately want to be part of Serbia and do everything they can to resist any influence or control by the Kosovo government, including various acts of violence of one kind or another from time to time.

The courthouse for the city of Mitrovica and the surrounding region is on the Serbian side of the Ibar. The Serbs will not allow any Kosovo judges or prosecutors to use the courthouse. Thus, it is exclusively used by EULEX. This meant trips to and from the courthouse from our base in the southern part of the city on trial days. This was a big production and a pain in the rear.

First, it was a pain in that, because of security concerns at the courthouse, all trial materials generally had to be hauled back and forth on a daily basis. Again, this would be an inconvenience in the States. In Kosovo, where trial materials are kept in very large, three-ring binders — and they are both numerous and voluminous — loading multiple cardboard boxes of files into our vehicles was part of the routine.

Second, it was a pain because, besides all of the files for the case, we all also had to haul out from our offices and load into the vehicles all of our heavy, bulky bulletproof vests and steel helmets (collectively known as battle rattle). The good news was that we didn’t have to wear it; we just had to take it — just in case. The bad news is that our vehicle was moving three judges, a legal officer (an upscale law clerk) as well as a driver/shooter, so if we really did ever need our battle rattle, it would have been impossible for five of us to get it on in the crowded space.

Finally, the vehicle into which we had to stuff ourselves, our files and our protective gear is what is known as a B6. While it is a real pain to stuff all of our gear into the rear of this vehicle we loved our B6s. They are heavily armored Toyota Land Cruisers. Inside and out they just look a bit bulkier than usual, but all of the hidden armor and bullet-proof glass will stop rounds from an AK-47. As we wended our way through several narrow, winding streets we would be sitting ducks for an ambush on our way to the courthouse. While I don’t think any of us really believed this would happen, I think we all internally smiled a thank you to our B6 each time we reached our destination.

Are We Ready?

But I have digressed. By 9 a.m., I had accounted for all of the files that need to be loaded, grabbed my criminal code book, robe, notes and battle rattle and stuffed it all into a large and very study shopping bag and had it sitting by my office door. Since I was the presiding judge of the panel, it was then time to make a tour of the office to make sure the other judges and legal officer had arrived and were getting ready. My tour revealed that one of the judges was not present. As usual, he was undoubtedly in the BreakTime still drinking coffee and would come strolling in just in time to stuff his personal gear into the B6 before departure.

I grabbed my weighty bag of personal gear and sort of staggered over toward the base security office where the B6s should be lined up waiting for all of the folks going north. Besides the judges and legal officer, there would be another B6 for the prosecutors and their files and gear and a third for the translators and court recorders. As expected, there were three B6s sitting in a row, back hatches up, engines idling and driver/shooters awaiting our arrival. Loved these guys! They were always ready!

As I headed back toward the office, the other judges and legal officers were headed for the loading area with their gear. I started hauling boxes of trial files to the B6s. The other folks returned and did the same. Well, except for the one judge we all knew would be late. As usual, he arrived just in time to grab his personal gear and head to the B6. Just like the pace of trial, there was not going to be any changing his behavior during my mission.

By 9:30, the three B6s were loaded with gear and people and we were ready to roll. Our driver/shooter called security control, announced our departure and gave them the I.D. numbers of all passengers. Our little convoy then rolled out of the front gate of the compound, down the road, made a couple of turns and headed across the Ibar into the north. Once across the river, we slowly squeezed up several narrow little streets until we arrived at the gate to the secure parking lot in front of the courthouse. Our driver/shooter checked us in by radio with security, and we all piled out and startfed the unloading process. We dropped all of our battle rattle in the hall near the front door so it was easily accessible if we should have to leave in a hurry. The trial files and other gear we carried up to either the first floor (second floor in the U.S.) courtroom or to our fourth-floor offices. This took several trips by all of us. I preferred to think of it as my morning workout routine.

By 9:45, I had set the legal officer to work seeing to it that all of the files we needed in the courtroom were there and that the courtroom was organized and everyone had bottled water — no way would anyone drink the tap water. His (that day it was a he) other job was to count noses and let me know when all of the attorneys, parties and witnesses had arrived.

My judicial colleagues and I settled into our individual offices to sign on to the EULEX network, check email and do whatever else may need doing before trial. The courthouse was completely rebuilt by USAID (United States Agency for International Development — your tax dollars hard at work) a few years ago, so the courtrooms and offices were quite satisfactory. In fact, the only way I knew I was not in an office in some courthouse in the U.S. was by the sand bags piled about breast high along the railing on the balcony outside my office. Apparently, they were to partially obstruct anyone who might wish to send some high-speed projectile my way.

As I mused over the question of how late we would be getting trial started that day (time is not a precise concept in Kosovo), one of the Serbian court staff who works full time in the courthouse came in wanting to know if I had brought my lunch or wanted to order something. This ritual is played out each trial day because, except on rare occasion when security thinks things are quiet enough in the north, once we are in the courthouse we are not permitted to leave. On the occasions when we were permitted out of the courthouse for lunch, we could only go to one restaurant that is just a stone’s throw down the street. While we are lunching, there are always a pair of close-protection shooters at a table nearby.

Judges who regularly ordered lunch brought in by the staff usually had two different currencies in their pockets. One pocket was for euros, the official currency of Kosovo, and the other for Serbian dinars in use almost exclusively in the north. I was told you could always pay in euros at the restaurant but would always get change in dinar. I can’t begin to imagine how badly folks must have been getting ripped off on the exchange rate.

By 10:20, despite my knowledge of how things work in Kosovo, I had gotten antsy about getting started so went looking for my legal officer. When found down near the courtroom, he told me what I had expected to hear: One of the lawyers had not appeared and when called said he was stuck in traffic coming up to Mitrovica from Pristina, the capital city. Even though that is only 40 kilometers (about 24 miles) away, the road at the time was all torn up with construction and the trip on a good day took most of an hour. This apparently was not a good day. I headed back to the judges’ offices and made the rounds, chatting with my colleagues.

Finally, a bit after 10:30, my legal officer appeared and told me that everyone was present, and we were ready to go. While I was putting on my robe and gathering my files and “cheat sheet” notes on various aspects of Kosovo criminal procedure that I expected might come up, my two judicial colleagues were doing the same and we met in the hallway. We then trooped en masse down two floors to the courtroom door near the judges’ bench. I told the legal officer we were ready, he knocked loudly three times on the door and onto the bench we went.

“Court is in session. You may be seated.”

And the trial day in Mitrovica had begun.


Jim Hargreaves is a senior circuit judge from Oregon who has been doing consulting work with courts in developing countries for about the last 12 years, mostly assisting with court and case management and the introduction of appropriate technology. From November 2013 to October 2014, he lived in the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica, working in the Kosovo judicial system as both an international judge trying major criminal cases in the local court as well as serving on the Court of Appeals, all as part of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. He and his European colleagues were tasked with dealing with cases of government corruption, organized crime and war crimes that the Kosovo prosecution and judiciary would not pursue because of lack of competence, intimidation, bribery or other extra-judicial influences. He can be contacted at jrhdks@gmail.com.

© 2015 Jim Hargreaves

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