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Minnesota judges help Kosovo find justice
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One of Judge Marilyn Justman Kaman's first views while driving to her assignment in Peja/Pec. (Photo courtesy of Judge Marilyn Justman Kaman)
Some Twin Cities area judges say they have a renewed passion for the American justice system after serving as the first U.S. judges to take part in the United Nation's mission in Kosovo. Judges from Hennepin, Ramsey and Dakota counties ruled on cases too sensitive for local judges: war crimes, ethnic disputes and organized crime.

Near Pristina, Kosovo — Driving alone in a little white car supplied by the U.N. Hennepin County Judge Marilyn Justman Kaman had just left Kosovo's largest city Pristina on the 65-mile trek to her new court in the city of Peja/Pec. As she passed churches collapsed in ruins and buildings gutted by fire, she began to question her decision to sign on as a U.N. judge in Kosovo.

"This is a society recovering from a war and as I drove to my assignment, I saw many destroyed homes, people without places to live, this society had gone through a lot of trauma," Kaman said.

Kaman was one of four American judges sent to Kosovo as part of the U.N.'s mission to stabilize the country's legal system. The U.N. has controlled Kosovo since a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 forced an end to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels.

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Image Judge Marilyn Justman Kaman

But handing down justice in Kosovo required adjustments on many levels; the electricity routinely went off for hours on a daily basis, heat was also intermittent, and Kaman and the other judges were often the lone English speakers in a courtroom that required translations of three languages -- English, Albanian and Serbian. Then, she says, there was also the danger.

"In late January there was a security incident in the building where I worked and a rocket was launched at the building. There were no injuries and it was a nighttime incident. But after that it changed the landscape for me. For whatever reason the U.N. assigned me two bodyguards after that," she says.

Ramsey County Judge Ed Wilson was stationed in Prizren which is one of the major cities in Kosovo about an hour's drive southwest of Pristina. He and the other judges not only had to orient themselves to a different culture, but also a different kind of legal system -- one in which judges take on an additional role.

"The judge acts as an investigator -- the prosecutor will present the judge with a list of witnesses that the prosecutor thinks are necessary for an indictment and the judge must hear these witnesses, ask questions, to make a determination whether there's sufficient evidence for the case to continue," Wilson said.

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Image The judges in Prizren

Wilson worked on panels with other international judges and sometimes local judges. He recalls a case in which the local judge, frightened by threats, still stuck with the case. "That left me with the idea that there are some people there who are willing to fight to see that justice becomes a reality in Kosovo, not pushed around by criminals, that justice does prevail," he said.

Dakota County Judge Bob Carolan also witnessed courage among some of the local judges. That prompted him to question how he'd act if, by accident of birth, he had been a local judge with a family in Pristina instead of Minnesota.

"I think you do soul search and would I have the same courage to render the correct decision," said Carolan. "I don't think it crosses your mind to make the wrong decision, self-serving to save your own neck so to speak. But there were several times I looked at these judges and thought would I have the courage to continue on in their system."

The U.N. sent international judges to Kosovo to prop up a court system historically corrupt and were judges are paid on average only $400 to $600 per month. Carolan said while he saw judicial courage he also faced remnants of the old system.

"There were a couple of arguments made to me -- 'judge, politically you may not want to do this even though this is the right thing.' And I was almost affronted by that in the beginning; thinking why would I make a political decision? And it was explained to me how the process worked in the past, that it was pretty open that the judge did take the political barometer in terms of deciding a case," according to Carolan.

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Image In the courtroom

The Twin Cities judges all handled dangerous cases. Hennepin County Judge Dan Mabley sat on a panel that heard the first war crime trial where the accused were part of the Albanian ethnic majority and commanders in the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA. Mabley says few thought the former commanders would ever be prosecuted.

"These four defendants were considered war heroes. The local media was supportive of them that they advised witnesses through the newspaper not to testify at the trial and suggested there should be some form of retribution against those who did," he said.

So Mabley says the court took the unusual step of shielding the identities of some witnesses from the defense attorneys and the accused. But he says those protective measures weren't enough for others to testify after being threatened, bribed, and even shot.

"Nobody got killed, but many witnesses refused to come at all whether we protected them or not. They thought that even with the protective measures we employed, their identities would be known. There was ample evidence that witnesses had good reasons to fear for their lives," Mabley said.

He and the other foreign judges found all four former KLA commanders guilty of crimes ranging from illegal arrests to torture to ordering murders. Mabley left Kosovo a day and half later, narrowly missing a series of attacks by demonstrators protesting the convictions. He says an international police officer was shot and killed. A U.N. official reported that vandals also attacked court buildings, police stations and 15 U.N. vehicles with hand grenades.

And what of Hennepin County Judge Marilyn Justman Kaman, the same judge who initially questioned her decision to serve in Kosovo? Kaman says she'd serve again if it didn't mean months apart from her family. She says serving as an international judge was a gratifying experience to help people on such a fundamental level. But Kaman and the other judges however aren't optimistic that a fair legal system will stay intact once the U.N. judges withdraw from Kosovo.

"I think it's going to take some time and hopefully the international community will continue its support and training and assistance to the Kosovo judiciary so they can establish that rule of law in a way that I now so appreciate back here, " Kaman said.

Ramsey Judge Ed Wilson has gone back to serve another four months in Kosovo and is scheduled to return by the end of 2003.

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