Ex-Carroll attorney takes on war, ethnic crimes in Balkans

Hickman in 3rd year as U.N. prosecutor in Kosovo

March 16, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

He recently won a precedent-setting war-crimes conviction.

But as former Carroll County State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman begins his third year as a United Nations prosecutor in Kosovo, he finds as much meaning - and a reason to hope for better times in the dangerous Balkans - in a case involving a single homicide.

A Serb woman had been beaten to death at the door of her bustling apartment building, but his investigation stalled when no one would acknowledge having seen anything. Then about a year later, an ethnic Albanian woman named the killer: an Albanian man who hated Serbs and wanted the victim's apartment.

Asked why she risked her life to cross ethnic lines and come forward, the witness replied that she was repaying the slain woman for an act of compassion, Hickman recalled.

The woman had apparently diverted Serb soldiers searching for the Albanians in the apartment building, by standing in the same door and saying, "No, no, no, only Serbs live here."

"Things divide along ethnic lines: Albanians won't testify against Albanians; Serbs won't testify against Serbs," Hickman said, describing the normal course of affairs in a region troubled by prejudice and violent revenge.

But recalling how the key testimony led to the woman's killer receiving a prison sentence of 15 to 20 years, he said during a telephone interview, "I think we're seeing a big improvement here."

Last month, Hickman successfully prosecuted a Serb who, as mayor during former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime, participated in the deportation of thousands of ethnic Albanian villagers.

Andjelko Kolasinac, former mayor of Orahova-Rahovec, is the highest-ranking civilian convicted of war crimes thus far, and the first to be convicted on charges involving forced labor and command responsibility for looting and destruction of property, said Michael E. Hartmann, an international prosecutor.

"This was an unprecedented finding that ... sends the message that no one is immune from justice," Hartmann said of the case, which Hickman developed to bring more serious charges, resulting in an eight-year prison sentence.

"Tom went out to the witnesses and built a better case," Hartmann said. "This is a war-crimes conviction because of one person - because of Tom Hickman."

Hickman, 56, was Carroll County state's attorney from 1975 to 1995.

He is a retired colonel in the Air National Guard who served two tours of duty in Bosnia, from August 1996 to January 1997, and from March to November 1998.

He also was a judge advocate in Sarajevo in the Office of the High Representative, which was created to oversee civilian affairs after the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords.

As a civilian, Hickman signed on in January 2001 for his first six-month stint as an international public prosecutor for the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK.

With prosecutors from Ireland, Britain, Germany, Malawi, the Philippines, Canada and Australia, he prepares cases to take before a panel of local and international judges.

The country has been under U.N. and NATO supervision since 1999, after the NATO alliance conducted a 78-day bombing campaign to force out Milosevic.

The Balkans remain a dangerous place. Hickman lives in a secure German army barracks and travels by armored car with an armed escort.

The precautions are necessary, he said recently, describing how a judge had been assaulted with a metal pipe. "We have," he added, sighing, "a lot of attacks on witnesses."

Hartmann, a former assistant district attorney in San Francisco, is on leave in Washington after serving for three years as prosecutor in Kosovo. He said security concerns wore him down.

"You can't go to a movie because [the security people say], `It's dark and there are too many people,'" he said.

Hickman, now the veteran American prosecutor for the mission, lives in Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city and the southernmost of five U.N. administrative regions in Kosovo. He was there when terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Nine-eleven was the worst for us. We're surrounded by 2 million Muslim people," he said. "I didn't know what to expect."

"But they were very good to me," he said, recalling hand-painted signs that sprouted near the barracks saying "God bless America."

One of Hickman's law partners back in Westminster, Edward M. Ulsch, suggested a reason for Hickman's ability to keep going in Kosovo.

"It's Nuremberg in the 2000s - maybe on a small scale, but like in 1945-'46," Ulsch said. "His dad was in the Army over there, liberating the concentration camps after the Normandy invasion. In my opinion, that is what really inspires Tom."

Hickman has investigated about 25 cases and prosecuted another 10, he said. His docket has consisted of war crimes and ethnic murders, about evenly divided between Serbian and Kosovar defendants.

The office also intends to tackle the burgeoning presence of organized crime in the region.

Asked to compare his caseload to that of a Carroll County prosecutor or defense lawyer, he said, "The stakes are much higher. These are crimes that affected a lot of people."

The case against the mayor involved the Serbs driving "hundreds of thousands of people out of the country, and their houses were looted and burned behind them," Hickman said.

"And the people went in their vehicles, tractors, tractors with wagons, with all their possessions they could take - clothes, wedding dresses, food, all their valuables."

The Serbian authorities put them on buses around the clock, sending hundreds of thousands of them into Albania and Macedonia from the deserted town.

As he was winning his case against the former mayor last month, Hickman had begun another trial of four men accused of a contract murder in May 2000 of an opposition Kosovo Liberation Army commander known as Commander Drini.

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