Chronicles Magazine
Friday, March 1, 2002

Hague Tribunal and Chicago Tribune taken in by Hoaxters

by Thomas Fleming

"Victim by victim, the prosecution in Slobodan Milosevic´s war crimes trial is demonstrating that within hours of the start of NATO´s bombing campaign the Yugoslav government began executing a comprehensive and systematic plan to expel hundreds of thousands of Albanians from Kosovo."

After this breathless introduction, the Chicago Tribune´s Tom Hundley (February 28, 2002) goes on to describe the testimony of Halit Barani, who provided "one of the most chilling pieces of evidence introduced Wednesday," namely, a "list of ´Shiptars´ in Kosovska Mitrovica who must be summarily liquidated." Hundley goes on to explain that "Shiptar" is "the derogatory word Serbs use for Albanians." In America a racial slur aggravates a charge of murder. Too bad that "Shiptar" is also the word Albanians use for Albanians.

Milosevic cross-examined Halit Barani, the Kosovo Albanian politician who claims to have discovered the hit-list, asking him if he knew that two of his cousins were the main drug dealers in Mitrovica and that another relative had fled to Turkey after raping a medical student. Barani admitted the second charge but he denied that his cousins were dealers. Since law enforcement agencies throughout Europe have identified Kosovo Albanians and the KLA as the major players in the European heroin market, such an allegation is not so easy to dismiss.

Milosevic turned the tables on his accuser and charged him with compiling lists of Serbs to be liquidated and posting the names in the library and the Adriatic Hotel. Barani explained his hit-list as an exhibition "with photographs of massacred Albanians and next to the photos I put the names of the perpetrators." When pro-life groups post names and pictures of abortionists on wanted posters, they are accused of being accessories to murder. By this standard Barani did draw up something like a hit-list, but did the Yugoslav government? The list offered in evidence by Barani, according to Milosevic, is riddled with the kind of grammatical and spelling errors that Albanians (but not Serbs) typically make. The judge-prosecution team (it is pointless to maintain a distinction) are calling for expert witness to testify because in their zeal to get at the truth, prosecutors apparently did not locate anyone competent in the Serbian language.

Milosevic also cited evidence of Albanian crimes against Yugoslav policemen. Barani denied what everyone knows to be true, that the Kosovo Liberation Army was attacking and killing policemen in order to provoke the reprisals that would outrage international opinion. Those who support the Albanians regard such attacks as legitimate measures in a war of national liberation; others regard them as terrorism, but only members of the KLA would deny they took place. Barani also denied being a member of the KLA, and the Chicago Tribune´s correspondent and editors are apparently willing to take him at this word and pronounce Milosevic guilty as charged.

If anyone at the Tribune had done a minimum of checking, he would have discovered that Halit Barani was the subject of a news story in December 31, 1999, when the Wall Street Journal ran a major piece debunking his credibility and linking him with the KLA, which gave him access to their precious satellite telephone network. The title is chillingly relevant to the current trial: "War in Kosovo Was Cruel, Bitter, Savage; Genocide it Wasn´t." The subtitle is equally telling, especially in the case of Barani´s testimony: "Tales of Mass Atrocity Arose And Were Passed Along, Often With Little Proof"

Barani had accused the Yugoslav government of murdering Albanian civilians and stuffing their bodies into the Trepca mine shaft. "Mr. Barani," commented the Journal´s reporters dryly, "is a former actor with a Karl Marx beard who summarizes Serb war crimes by showing a photo of a baby with a smashed skull. [He] spent the war moving from village to village with his manual typewriter, calling in reports to foreign radio services and diplomats with his daily allotment of three minutes on a KLA satellite phone."

His "eye-witness accounts" of these atrocities were spread around the world, and the Kosovo authorities even quoted a "U.S. embassy official in Athens as saying there are witnesses and still photos of trucks carrying bodies. Western journalists phoned the embassy, but a spokeswoman said she couldn´t find the supposed source." No better foundation could be found for other reports emanating ultimately from Barani´s overworked manual typewriter. Nonetheless, concluded reporters Daniel Pearl and Robert Block, "some commentators stated the theory as fact."

After debunking the factual evidence of Barani´s hoax, Pear and Block observed that even "Mr. Barani doesn´t completely stand by his story. ´I told everybody it was supposition, it was not confirmed information,´ he says. But he adds, ´For the Serbs, everything is possible.´" Mr. Barani´s credulity is easily explained by his zeal to establish an Albanian state and an Albanian´s natural desire to retaliate against his traditional enemy, the Serbs. What explains the credulity displayed by the Chicago Tribune and the AP wire, which ran a similar story? In reporting on the Hague Tribunal, "stating a theory as a fact" has become standard practice. A few days ago, these people were singing the praises of Daniel Pearl, a real reporter, who lost his life trying to get the facts of a story. The Tribune staff cannot even risk the paper cut they might receive if they looked up Shiptar in an Albanian dictionary. Instead of eulogizing Danny Pearl, they should be emulating him.

© Chronicles Magazine 2002
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