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Concern Mounts For Kosovar Lawyer Arrested By Serb Police

Abducted by a special team of Serbian policemen on December 3 and since held incommunicado, Teki Bokshi, the Kosovar Albanian lawyer who has led efforts to free some 2,000 ethnic Albanians still held in Serbian jails, now shares their uncertain fate.
By Laura Rozen

In an ominous signal to those working to defend human rights and uphold the law in Serbia, plain-clothes police arrested Teki Bokshi on Friday, December 3.


For the past few months Bokshi had been working for the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC) defending Kosovar Albanians currently imprisoned in Serbian jails. According to his colleagues at the HLC, Bokshi's fate and whereabouts are not known, and the Ministry of Interior has so far failed to comment on the reason for his detention.


HLC executive director Natasa Kandic believes Bokshi was abducted by a special group of Kosovo Serb police.


"I don't know who kidnapped him, but I am sure he is abducted by some group of police. Serb police from Kosovo," Kandic said in a phone interview Wednesday.


Kandic said the abduction resembled those that were implemented during the NATO air strikes. On Saturday, the day after the snatch, Bokshi called Kandic. According to Kandic, Bokshi could only say, "I am here," before the phone was cut. Kandic says she didn't know where "here" was.


According to two eyewitnesses, Ibish Hoti and Mustafa Radoniqi, both ethnic Albanian attorneys working at the HLC, Bokshi was arrested while the three men were returning to Belgrade from visiting clients at the Sremska Mitrovica jail.


About 15 kilometres outside Belgrade a grey Mercedes with Interior Ministry license plates ordered their car to pull over. Three men got out of the Mercedes, took the car keys from Radoniqi, confiscated Bokshi's mobile phone, which happened to be ringing at the time, and demanded to see the three attorneys' documents.


The police examined and returned Hoti's documents, confiscated Radoniqi's ID and then demanded to see Bokshi's, who was only carrying his attorney's identity card. Bokshi explained his other identity papers were at the front desk of his Belgrade hotel (a common practice in Yugoslav hotels).


The police then ordered the other two attorneys to wait in their vehicle (without their keys) and ordered Bokshi to accompany them back to the hotel in order to pick up his identity documents. This was at 2pm on Friday. By 5pm, Hoti and Radoniqi were still waiting in their car by the roadside.


When alerted to the situation, Kandic issued a request to the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs for information on why Bokshi had been detained. By Monday no information had been forthcoming.


Kandic has checked every police station from Belgrade to Sremska Mitrovica, and he is not there. The men who took Bokshi, in an official Ministry of Interior car, said they were going to check on his identity.


A manager at Bokshi's Belgrade hotel, the Hotel Slavija Luxe, told an IWPR reporter on Monday that they still had Bokshi's identity documents at the front desk and that no police officers had come by to check them.


"Everything is very strange," Kandic told IWPR on Monday. "If the police wanted to check Bokshi's identity, it would only take them half an hour to go to the hotel and check. Based on Serbian law, the police have a right to hold somebody for 24 hours, to check ID. But nobody went to his hotel to check."


It has been five days since he was taken and Kandic says she is no longer speaking of Bokshi's disappearance or arrest, but of his abduction.


"My thinking is that they chose Teki Bokshi among those three lawyers. Why? We don't know. But probably the main reason is that Bokshi is from Djakovica," Kandic said in a reference to the thousands of missing Albanian men from that town, many of whom are still languishing in Serb jails.


But another human rights official suggests Bokshi may have been targeted because he alone out of the three attorneys in the car was allowed into Sremska Mitrovica prison on December 3.


Some of the Kosovar detainees are believed to be witnesses to a massacre of Kosovar prisoners by Serb police following a NATO bombing raid on Dubrava prison in Istok on May 21. This incident is currently under investigation by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague.


Jiri Dienstbier, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Amnesty International have both raised the alarm concerning Bokshi's arrest.


"The Special Rapporteur has asked the Serbian authorities to explain Bokshi's whereabouts and help resolve his arbitrary detention," said Barbara Davis, UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) representative to former Yugoslavia on Monday. "I hope this situation will not lead to a set back for all detainees."


In an alert Monday, Amnesty International said it is "seriously concerned for Bokshi's safety," and urged people to send telegrams, faxes, and letters calling for Bokshi's release to Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian Minister of Interior Vlajko Stojiljkovic, and Yugoslav minister of Internal Affairs Zoran Sokolovic.


For those who have met Teki Bokshi, the arrest of this most moderate and decent man is a particular outrage. For Bokshi is one of the few people who inhabit that increasingly narrow patch of common ground where Serbs and Albanians come together to fight for human rights.


The greying, mild-mannered Bokshi navigated the increasingly mono-ethnic worlds of Kosovo and Serbia without ethnic prejudice, spoke Albanian and Serbian in the course of his work, and worked side by side with his colleagues from all ethnic groups.


Driving between Serbia and Kosovo to meet his Kosovar clients in Serbian jails, Bokshi risked his life every day crossing the provincial border, running the gauntlet of Serbian officialdom and Albanian extremists, angry at his working for a Belgrade-based human rights organisation.


Bokshi was instrumental in winning the release last month of 19 Kosovar Albanian children, aged between 13 and 17, from Serbian prisons. Despite the constant danger and intimidation Bokshi was cheerful in a meeting with an IWPR reporter last month in Belgrade.


His smile faded only once when he and his colleague, Ibish Hoti, while compiling a list of minors held in Serbian prisons, came across the case of a five year old girl. "My God", he said, rubbing his eyes.


Bokshi was scheduled to represent 28 Kosovars being held in Milosevic's hometown, Pozarevac, this past Monday. According to Kandic, the 28 were taken by Serbian police from a convoy of Kosovars trying to flee the province during the NATO air strikes.


"We had expected them to be released since they were all taken from a civilian refugee column," Kandic said Monday. "But now that Bokshi has been arrested we don't know."


The trial of Kosovar paediatrician and human rights activist Flora Brovina is due to resume on Thursday in Nis. Brovina's trial, which began last month, has helped focus international attention on the thousands of Kosovar Albanians still being held in Serbian jails, many of whom have not been charged.


The UN's Barbara Davis said she led a delegation of ten organisations, including representatives from the Norwegian and Swedish embassies, the HLC, and Serbian PEN, to visit Brovina in prison on November 25. Such international attention may be making the Serbian authorities uncomfortable.


Some 300 Kosovar Albanians have been released from Serb jails since June, but almost 2000 are still confirmed as prisoners.


In addition, one western official involved with the prisoner issue and who declined to be named said on Monday that the families of hundreds more Kosovar Albanians are being approached by middle-men demanding ransom money of up to 50,000 U.S. dollars per head.


"Prices per prisoner started at 10,000 US dollars and very quickly jumped to 50,000 US dollars, once people caught onto the 'get rich quick' scheme they were sitting on," the official said. "One reason the prices were jacked so high is that now in addition to the police getting a cut, judges, lawyers and middle men are now all involved".


Human rights organisations are struggling to confirm facts about the prisoner buy-back operations. Many families fear that by revealing information they will jeopardise the safe return of their loved ones.


The official said that to date two thirds of prisoner releases have been decided without the participation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the agency officially designated to deal with the prisoner of war issue. The ICRC has often simply received notification that a release is to take place and to provide transportation for the detainee to return to Kosovo.


The official confirmed that a "prisoners' market" is active north east of Podujevo, near Kosovo's provincial border with Serbia. Ethnic Albanians are encouraged to pay middle- men to secure the release of Kosovar Albanian 'prisoners', many of who remain hostages even after payment is made.


A Serbian private detective agency is also accepting money to search for missing Kosovar Albanians and Serbs, and has launched a database of missing people on its website at www.ozna.co.yu.


Laura Rozen is a frequent IWPR contributor on the Balkans.


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