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Former Clay County judge helps rebuild justice in Kosovo

In a legal career spanning almost four decades, Kathleen Weir's work has ranged from settling income tax appeals for the Internal Revenue Service in the 1970s to helping a country rebuild its justice system after civil war.

Former Clay County judge Kathleen Weir
"A vast majority of the people do not want to see another war," Kathleen Weir, former Clay County judge, said Friday in her Fargo home. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

In a legal career spanning almost four decades, Kathleen Weir's work has ranged from settling income tax appeals for the Internal Revenue Service in the 1970s to helping a country rebuild its justice system after civil war.

The country was Kosovo, which proclaimed itself an independent state in 2008 but before that was a province of Serbia.

Weir arrived in Kosovo in 2004, when she took a year's absence from her job as a Clay County District Court judge to help the region deal with the aftermath of ethnic violence that erupted following the breakup of Yugoslavia.

One year became two and two years stretched into three.

In all, Weir spent five years in Kosovo working for the United Nations as a trial judge and as a member of the Kosovo Supreme Court.

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Weir said her first year was spent gaining an understanding of the laws that the courts in Kosovo were dealing with: Yugoslavian law, Kosovo law, Serbian law, international law and United Nations regulations.

"It was just overwhelming. To me, there was a real need for consistency," said Weir, adding that another reason she stayed longer than planned was because she was in the middle of a war crimes trial when her first year was up, and she didn't want to leave fellow judges in a bind.

Before talking about her experience in Kosovo, Weir prefaced her comments with a summary of its recent history.

After Yugoslavia dissolved following the death of longtime leader Josip Tito, a Serbian leader by the name of Slobodan Milosevic stepped in to fill the power vacuum.

In the 1990s, Milosevic attempted to assert Serbian control over a number of regions, including Kosovo, by inflaming and exploiting ethnic divisions.

When Serbia intensified its repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo through things like forced deportations and killings, the United Nations began a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

The bombing stopped Serbian hostilities in Kosovo, but the damage was done, and the United Nations was left with the job of helping Kosovo find justice for atrocities committed against Kosovars by Serbs as well as fellow Kosovars, who conducted reprisals against those suspected of collaborating with Serbia.

Weir, who presided over a number of war crimes trials, said she doesn't like to talk about the atrocities the cases brought to light.

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But she said her experience in Kosovo instilled in her a deeper appreciation of the United States Constitution.

"We need to strive very, very hard - always - to protect our Bill of Rights so that we do not end up with the kind of oppression that happened at Kosovo," Weir said.

Bodyguards

Because a number of the people put on trial in Kosovo were considered heroes by some, at one point, Weir's life was considered to be at risk, and she was assigned bodyguards.

"What bothered me the most was if I wanted to go out in the evening, to go to dinner someplace, I was very reluctant to do that because I didn't want to impose on their time," Weir said, referring to her security contingent.

Weir returned to Fargo in 2008 after the U.N. mission in Kosovo had largely concluded.

After getting home, she said she realized how much she had missed simple things like the freedom to move about freely without fear.

And fresh air - she had missed that, too.

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"Kosovo is very poor," she said. "In the capital of Pristina, electricity, which is sporadic, comes from a coal plant.

"It is so polluted, it is just unbelievable," Weir said, adding that the streets of Pristina were also littered with debris, a situation she thinks may finally be improving in Kosovo.

Although U.N. authority is gone from Kosovo and Serbia still has claims to the territory, Weir said she doesn't think the area is at risk of the kind of violence it saw a decade ago.

"A vast majority of the people do not want to see another war," Weir said, though she added it will be a long time before the region's wounds are completely healed.

"With thousands and thousands of people still missing, the horrible brutality that occurred, I think it's going to take another generation before that begins to fade into the background," said Weir, who feels Kosovo's major challenge now is to deal with rampant corruption, a way of life she said is far from rare in that part of the world.

Labor of love

While in Kosovo, Weir said she grew to respect many of her Kosovar colleagues, and she became friends with people from many ethnic groups, from Albanian to Serbian.

"People are all alike," she said. "We want to be healthy and fed and housed and free from oppression."

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Weir served as a judge in Clay County for about 17 years before going to Kosovo.

Once she returned to the Red River Valley, she opened her own mediation and arbitration service, which focuses mainly on family cases.

"Attorneys will call me and say, 'We've got a case here, are you willing to mediate it?'

"Because it's voluntary, they can withdraw at any time and still go back to court," Weir said.

"If we reach an agreement, it is put into court documents and put into court orders, and it is legally binding.

"I love the work," Weir said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com.
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