After 15 years and many setbacks, Fatose Bytyqi hasn't given up his quest for justice in the murder of his three brothers, who were found shot in the back of their heads atop a mass grave in Serbia.

Ylli, Agron and Mehmet Bytyqi, all from Hampton Bays and in their early 20s, had joined 400 other Albanian-Americans in April 1999 to fight Serbian forces that were killing and pushing out ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo.

After the war ended six weeks later, the brothers went on a mission of mercy that ultimately led to their execution in July 1999 at a Serbian special police training camp.

No one has been convicted of their deaths, despite pressure from the U.S. State Department, the Justice Department and human rights groups.

Fatose Bytyqi said he has a special obligation to push for the killers' prosecution: His brothers went to Kosovo in part to protect him, his mother and sister, who were living there at the start of the war.

"They came to help me. Now I must come to help them," said Bytyqi, 35, a 7-Eleven manager who lives in Hampton Bays.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"The people who kill my brothers, they did some major crimes in Serbia," he said in English, which he's still mastering. "And today they are free."

The Bytyqi family and supporters will renew the call for justice Monday at Southampton Town Hall while marking the 15th anniversary of the deaths. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) will discuss his House resolution demanding Serbia prosecute the killers.

"This is the only case I know where U.S. citizens were taken and assassinated and where no meaningful investigation or prosecution has occurred," said former Ambassador Robert Barry, a Bytyqi adviser who once headed the U.S. mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

@Newsday

Serbian and U.S. officials acknowledged Bytyqi's frustration. They said they have arranged high-level meetings for him, granted the Serbian passport that he sought and are actively pursuing the case.

"This case remains at the top of our bilateral agenda with Serbia," said Jonathan Moore, the State Department's office director for South Central Europe.

U.S. ambassador to Serbia Michael Kirby and others have raised the issue often with Serbian officials, including the new prime minister, he said.

"Prime Minister [Aleksandar] Vucic told us in May that we would see progress in this case this summer," Moore said.

Barry said Serbia also might be spurred to act by its bid to join the European Union, which requires adherence to rule of law for membership.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Bytyqi is skeptical. He said Vucic told him when they met in December that he would get to the case but that it's "risky" because of Serbian politics.

"I am not fooled by that promise," he said recalling past pledges. "They keep telling us that they are going to do something, and nothing happens."

 

A shared plightThe three brothers vanished after aiding neighbors in Kosovo who were Serbian Romas, an ethnic minority amid an Albanian majority.

The neighbors had brought food to the Bytyqi family when Serbian attacks made it risky for Albanians to go outside. After Serbian forces withdrew, the Romas feared anti-Serb reprisals. The brothers agreed to escort them out of Kosovo.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

On the trip, they crossed an unmarked border into Serbia and were arrested. A judge sentenced them to 15 days.

The jail released them July 8, 1999, but they didn't return home. Bytyqi and his mother went to the jail for answers, but got none. Eventually, a witness said two men had taken the brothers away in waiting cars.

Two years later, in July 2001, Bytyqi and his family learned the brothers' bodies had been found near a special police training camp in Petrovo Selo.

Blindfolded with their hands bound by black insulated wire, Ylli, 25; Agron, 23, and Mehmet, 21, had been shot and dumped in a ditch full of slain ethnic Albanians brought from Kosovo by refrigerated trucks.

In 2006, after much U.S. government prodding, the Serbian war crimes prosecutor indicted two Serbian police officials for driving the brothers to the camp and holding them there.

 

A frustrating rulingTwo trials, two appeals and seven years later, judges ruled the officers couldn't be convicted of war crimes: The war had ended days before the slayings.

Bytyqi's lawyer for the trial, Natasa Kandic, founder of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, charged 96 witnesses lied to cover up for superiors.

Bytyqi worried the officers would be scapegoats while those who ordered and carried out the murders went free. He told prosecutors: "You just catch small fishes. You guys need to go to big fish."

Serbian war crimes prosecutors have investigated, but not charged, higher-ranking officials for ordering the killings.

One, a top official, committed suicide. Another is in jail for other war crimes. A third was Goran "Guri" Radosavljevic, the camp commander.

Barry said Serbian investigators told him the Serbian government has put up a wall of silence to protect Radosavljevic and others blamed for war crimes during the Kosovo war.

Radosavljevic has repeatedly denied a role in the brothers' execution. He said he was on vacation at the time. Now a businessman, he is on the board of Vucic's political party.

Former diplomats and attorneys who have taken up Bytyqi's cause acknowledge he can be undiplomatic.

 

A tough advocateIn an interview last week, he described how he shocked high-level Serbian officials in meetings with demands, such as firing everyone in the Interior Ministry.

Yet Bytyqi has been seen as an effective advocate.

"Whether you agree with his tactics and his strategy, Fatose was an incredible force of justice for his brothers," said Sam Nazzaro, a retired Justice Department lawyer and legal attache in Belgrade until 2006.

"Even from the Serbian side, he was, in an unusual way, respected for his determination."