Seeing a hint of hope in Kosovo

Ex-Carroll prosecutor begins third year of United Nations service

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, created to oversee civilian affairs after the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords.

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