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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Kosovo News Flash #41

Ex-detainees recount ill-treatment in Smrekonica prison

(New York, May 26, 1999) - Ethnic Albanian men held for several weeks in the prison of Smrekonica (about five kilometers south of Kosovska Mitrovica) described to Human Rights Watch their abusive treatment at the hands of the Serbian authorities. The former detainees, who were released last Saturday, reported that prison cells were grossly overcrowded, that prisoners were given insufficient food, and that the men, who were suspected of being members or supporters of the Kosovo Liberation Army, were almost without exception severely beaten during interrogation.

Human Rights Watch representatives in Kuks, northern Albania, interviewed six men late in the evening of Saturday, May 2, who had been released that day from the prison in Smrekonica. The men, all interviewed separately, were among some 500 detainees who, according to the UNHCR, had been released from prison on Saturday and taken to the Albanian border in seven batches. On Sunday, May 3, another group of over 400 detainees were reportedly released from the Smrekonica prison to cross the border into Albania. The accounts of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who ranged in age from twenty-seven to fifty-six, reveal a clear pattern of mistreatment by the prison authorities.

The men described how they had been held in the prison in Smrekonica for periods of two to three weeks. Some of the men had already been held for two weeks in a school in Srbica (Skenderaj in Albanian) before being transferred to the Smrekonica facility, while others were arrested in the Vucitrn (Vushtri in Albanian) region on May 2 or 3. Among those released were many of the men who had been separated from a refugee convoy in Vucitrn, an incident that Human Rights Watch described on May 20 (see Kosovo Flash #40). In all, an estimated 3,000 men were reportedly being held in the prison as of May 22, when the first large group of detainees was released.

The prisoners were held in conditions that fell far short of minimal acceptable standards. All of the former detainees reported that the prison cells were so overcrowded that it was almost impossible for prisoners to sit down. A fifty- two-year-old man from Reznik said that seventy- six persons were crowded into his cell, which measured four by eight meters, while a forty- three-year-old man from the Podujevo area reported that his four-by-five-meter room held thirty-six men. The detainees were not provided with mattresses or blankets, but were instead forced to sleep on the concrete floor.

Without exception, the ethnic Albanian detainees were interrogated, some as many as five times, about their possible connections to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA, UK in Albanian). During these interrogations, the men reported being beaten, some severely. A.K., age twenty-seven, was first held for two weeks in the school in Srbica and then transferred to the Smrekonica prison, where he was held for another two weeks. A.K. told Human Rights Watch: "I was interrogated five times: two times in the school in Skenderaj, and three times in the prison [in Smrekonica]. They asked me if I was a member of the UK, who I knew in the UK, whether I had given money to the UK, if I had connections in the UK, etc. Whenever I said I didn't know any UK, they'd beat me up with [wooden] sticks, rubber police batons or the butt of a gun. They'd hit me in my back and on my hands."

Other interviewees also stated that they were severely beaten on their backs, heads, hands and knees during interrogations, some of which took place in technical and medical schools in Kosovska Mitrovica, which allegedly serve as the headquarters of the police after NATO bombed the police station in Mitrovica. The BBC has aired footage of numerous released detainees showing severe bruises on their backs and arms.

Two of the interviewees reported that the officers conducting the interrogations, none of whom they recognized, played loud Serbian folk music while they questioned and beat the ethnic Albanians. Moreover, one witness reported that men were forced to shout slogans such as "Long live Serbia." Two witnesses reported that the Serb forces had on occasion forced two ethnic Albanians to fight with each other. If the Albanians would not fight each other aggressively enough, they would be beaten by the Serb guards.

The detainees were forced to sign a document stating that they were notified that they were being held under suspicion of being a member of, or a supporter of, the KLA. Human Rights Watch is concerned that the arrest and detention of many of these men, particularly those picked up in Vucitrn and Srbica, was arbitrary and unjustifiable. Serb forces operating in these areas separated large numbers of able-bodied men, roughly those from ages sixteen to sixty, from civilian convoys, reportedly requiring no evidence of KLA membership apart from age and ethnicity. No detainees were brought before a judge or given the opportunity to challenge the legal basis of their detention.

Besides physical mistreatment, the men reported that prisoners were provided insufficient food, about 200 grams of bread per person per day. The men from the Vucitrn region all reported that they had not received any food at all for forty- eight hours, from the moment they were detained in Vucitrn on the evening of Sunday, May 2, until about 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 4. Some former detainees reported that the food improved about ten days into their detention, when the authorities began to serve warm meals.

On Saturday morning, May 22, the men were called up one by one and told to board buses waiting for them in the prison compound, without being informed where the buses were taking them. The buses then transported them to Zhur, a village some four kilometers away from the Kosovo- Albanian border crossing, near the Albanian town of Kuks, where the men were told to get off the buses. They were then told to walk the last kilometers to Albania, and not to stray from the main road, since the sides of the road were mined. Somewhere between Zhur and the border crossing at Morin, the men reported being robbed of all their valuables by members of the Yugoslav Army. While the majority of the detainees were released, the witnesses claim that a number of men from the Kosovska Mitrovica area - men who were arrested in the days immediately prior to the witnesses' release - are still being held at the Smrekonica prison. Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned about the safety and well- being of those held in Smrekonica and other prisons, and calls upon the Serbian authorities to release as soon as possible those men against whom there is no evidence of KLA membership. Moreover, the Serbian authorities should guarantee the physical integrity of the detainees and provide them with basic items such as food, water, mattresses, and blankets.

Source: Human Rights Watch

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