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Law student Alexandra Rickart is part of the collaboration between the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for International and Comparative Law and TRIAL Watch. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Law students partner with Swiss organization to track war criminals

In March 1999, in the town of Suva Reka in Kosovo, Serbian police officer Sladjan Cukaric lined up and killed four unarmed men, shot at civilians who tried to flee him and his fellow officers and fired into a restaurant where dozens of men, women and children were being held until none were left alive.

Cukaric was eventually prosecuted as a war criminal for his role in the attack on Albanian civilians during the Kosovo war and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Alexandra Rickart, a fellow at the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for International and Comparative Law, spent over a month delving into Cukaric’s criminal history and writing a detailed profile as part of a partnership between the law school and TRIAL, or Tracking Impunity Always, a Swiss nongovernmental organization that tracks and publishes information on those alleged to have committed genocide, torture or other war crimes.

“Students are able to do some in-depth research and take what they learned in the classroom, in theory, and link it to an actual case,” said Catherine Moore, the law school’s coordinator for international law programs. “The project is really about informing the public of these things that are happening all over, that may not necessarily always make the news. It’s about making sure people are being held accountable for their actions, and it’s really about ending the impunity that exists.”

Students began working on the project — called TRIAL Watch — last fall, and Rickart is one of five students at the center who are participating this semester, Moore said.

“Basically, I researched what [Cukaric] had been alleged to do during the massacre and then what ended up happening to him,” Rickart said.

Each profile of an alleged or convicted criminal takes about a month to a month and a half for a student to compile, Moore said. Sources for information range from national and local newspapers to court records, but the biggest obstacle for student-researchers is typically the language barrier, Rickart said: English-language content about many of the alleged criminals is scarce.

“A lot of [the fellows] do speak another language, so they’re able to do research in those foreign languages,” Moore said. “And that helps their own language skills — legal French is very different from the French you learn in school, and it’s definitely a challenge if you’re not used to legalese in another language.”

Keeping the public up to date on the status of alleged perpetrators of war crimes through TRIAL Watch is one of the organization’s major projects, Moore said, but TRIAL is also involved in lobbying, litigation and research.

“It’s about informing the public that people are being held accountable for these internationally wrongful acts and that we’re going to make sure it’s well publicized,” she said. “Some of the criminal profiles they’re doing, the individuals are still at large, some have been convicted and are already in prison, some have been tried and acquitted. Oftentimes, TRIAL Watch profiles individuals you’ve never even heard of, in situations and conflicts that don’t necessarily make our news.”

But the NGO’s main purpose, Rickart said, is to advocate for the victims of war criminals. TRIAL Watch aids that mission by giving the relatives and friends of victims an easy way to track what’s happened in a particular case.

“Their whole overall goal is to put the law at the service of victims of international crime,” she said. “Everything they do — the lobbying, the research, the TRIAL Watch program — it all overlaps. The profiles help show victims what’s occurring with the alleged perpetrators of the crimes and they also help inform the public and show that this is such an important aspect of law.”

About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.