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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Kosovo prisoners still languish in Serb jails

More than 2,000 Kosovo Albanian civilians arrested in the final days of the Serbian military operations in the province are still held in Serbian jails, unsure of their future. The Belgrade-based NGO the Humanitarian Law Fund is their only link to home, as the UN is powerless to help.

By Virtyt Gacaferi in Pristina

Every Friday hundreds of people from the western Kosovo town of Gjakova and elsewhere come to Pristina to protest the continued detention of more than 2,000 Kosovans still held in jails over the border in Serbia proper.

Many were arrested in their homes and taken to Serbia, others were snatched on the road to refuge in Albania as the conflict started. Some were captured after the NATO-Belgrade agreement was signed and the Serb forces withdrew from Kosovo, but taking their captives with them. Most are being held without charge.

So far they have had sympathy but not action from the UN and the rest of the international community in Pristina. Hundreds of distraught friends and relatives now gather weekly outside the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) HQ, brandishing photos of their missing ones, calling for UN action.

They spoke with Kosovo civil administrator Bernard Kouchner during one protest, but he could only say that as the UN's special representative in Kosovo, he could not be directly engaged, but promised to make a "strong statement" on the matter.

"Allow me to say that I support your demonstration," he told the gathered crowd, as reported by the Pristina daily Koha Ditore. "I have met three times with your representatives. And next time I will make a strong statement."

Otherwise little else can be done to help the jailed. "All these people are being held on the basis of one month police (i.e., not court) detention orders," says lawyer Teki Bokshi, who has visited some of the prisoners as part of a delegation from the Belgrade based NGO, the Humanitarian Law Fund.

"These orders were made under the martial law enforced in Yugoslavia during the air war with NATO. But their month long validity expired on June 15. Also martial law is not in force any more."

Another lawyer who visited the detained while working with the same NGO, Mustafa Radoniqi, described the prisoners as "walking skeletons". He says they get very little food and are treated very badly. "The prisoners' biggest concern is situation in Kosova and for their families", said Radoniqi. "Their biggest problem is that they do not know about their legal status and whether they will get a trial."

Some prisoners from Kosovo, arrested after the start of the Serb crackdown, but before the start of the NATO airstrikes, have been released. They speak of the hard treatment meted out to the ethnic Albanian detainees.

"In Nis prison from June 10 until July 1, everybody was tortured" ex-prisoner Sami Gashi told Koha Ditore. "After this date only some of the prisoners were maltreated, but those who were not after July 1 still got very little food. We were only given 300 grams of bread and some light soup each day."

The Humanitarian Law Fund is one of a very few NGOs helping find and support Albanians held in Serb jails. With four offices in Kosovo, they offer what information they have from their visits to the Serb jails.

Bokshi says that all the detained were civilians who were not associated with the Kosovo Liberation Army. "All the prisoners I visited are civilians, who were not implicated in fighting in Kosova. They are mainly taken from the roads, houses, or as they were fleeing to Albania, after being forced out of their houses."

In fact the Fund believes that there are many more Kosovo Albanians in Serb jails than Belgrade is willing to admit. "Lawyers engaged by the Fund for Humanitarian Law, during their visits to Serb jails discovered 500 more Albanians whose names are not on the lists compiled by the Serbian Justice Ministry," says Ariana Zherka, a senior researcher with the Fund.

That would bring the number of detained to at least 2,097 people, she says. "This is the biggest problem to arise since NATO entered Kosovo."

Virtyt Gacaferi is a journalist with Koha Ditore.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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