Detective Offers Kosovo Pow Hope

A Serbian detective is promising to break the logjam in Kosovo prisoner exchanges.

Detective Offers Kosovo Pow Hope

A Serbian detective is promising to break the logjam in Kosovo prisoner exchanges.

A year after NATO's intervention in the Kosovo crisis, there are thousands of people still held prisoner in Serbia, Kosovo and elsewhere.


Few enjoy the prospect of early release.


Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, all prisoners of war should be released once hostilities cease. However, Bureaucratic oversights and other complicating factors have muddied the situation in Kosovo.


The principal complication revolves around whether the conflict was international in nature, or an internal Yugoslav affair.


The Yugoslav authorities say the matter was an internal issue, not an international conflict. Thus, they argue, the Geneva Convention does not apply. The international community says it does.


Yet, when NATO signed the Kumanovo agreement with the Yugoslav military prior to their departure from Kosovo, they left the prisoner release off the document.


As a result, international agencies that normally operate in these situations find themselves working in a grey area.


The International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, argues that even though it still visits these individuals it cannot advocate the prisoner's release because Kosovo is still part of Yugoslavia, not a foreign state.


At the same time, Belgrade is getting round the argument by charging many of those detained with civilian offences, in the main with charges of "terrorism". Under the Geneva Convention anyone charged with a civilian offence can still be detained.


However, despite the logjam, some do go free. The latest release involved six people. Three Serbs, and three Kosovo Albanians.


Their exchange was secretive. The Serbs, from Orahovac, were released at Orazje in Montenegro. The Albanians, rounded up during NATO air strikes, were handed over at a NATO camp -- Merdari -- on the 29 of January.


The man who arranged the deal, Zivorad Jovanovic, who owns a detective agency called OZNA, says there are more such releases in the pipeline.


Also known as Zika Beli, Jovanovic used to be a police inspector. A man, apparently, with a good reputation in Kragujevac, where OZNA is based. Jovanovic says he co-operates with the Centre for Peace in the Balkans, which passes on details of his activities to the International Red Cross, KFOR and the Albanian government.


OZNA, its internet website (www.ozna.co.yu) says, "discovers everything" and specialises in finding missing people. Details of a few of its success are given on the website.


Jovanovic does undertake a number of other tasks such as general security, surveillance, and private investigating. Additional services include transporting large amounts of cash, such as the three million dollars the website reports was successfully taken out of Kosovo as part of a real estate sale.


The vast majority of those in detention are Kosovo Albanian males, arrested in the run-up to the conflict or during NATO's bombardment. But groups of Serbs are also thought to be captive in Kosovo and even in neighbouring Albania.


Estimates of numbers range from 2,000 to 70,000, though most human rights observers think the number is around 3,000. Some of the Albanian prisoners were already in Serbia, but others were hastily transferred to Serbia from prisons in Kosovo during the Yugoslav troop withdrawal.


They include combatants from both sides of the conflict but also many civilians, including some reportedly snatched as Serb forces left the province a year ago.


Many do not even know what charges they face. However, under outside pressure Serbia's courts are quickly processing dozens of cases -- a legal process that outside observers say contravenes many human rights procedures.


When the Kumanovo agreement -- securing the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and the arrival of NATO troops -- was signed last year, the issue of prisoner releases was overlooked as pressure mounted to get the deal signed away.


NATO sources however have been quoted as stating the prisoner releases were in the original draft Kumanovo document but excised when Yugoslav military officers said the issue wasn't theirs to negotiate.


It was more important to give the Serbs a document that they could sign than quibble about the prisoner issue, one US official has been cited as stating.


Nevertheless, it is still an issue that has received very little attention, even though it affects a great many lives.


Not least the prisoners themselves. The majority languish in Serbian prisons where there is convincing evidence of maltreatment at the hands of their captors. Many are denied access to lawyers. One a group, held in Nis, has been prevented from seeing a lawyer because they do not hold identity papers.


Albanian Belgrade-based lawyer, Husnija Bitici, says he is not allowed access to his Albanian clients in the Sremska Mitrovica prison. In one case he has been denied access five times to visit 12 of his clients.


"The porter denied me entry without even allowing me to talk to anyone in a position of authority," Bitici said.


More disturbingly, there are also cases of Serb lawyers ransoming their clients to their families back in Kosovo. An unofficial "prisoner market" operates in near Podujevo, close to the provincial border with Serbia proper.


It works in the other direction too. OZNA says that an Albanian Driza Meriti came to them offering 20.000 German marks to help find and release his son who was imprisoned somewhere in Serbia.


Meriti claimed he could help trace some Serbs missing since October. He offered ten Serbs in exchange for his son, according to OZNA's boss.


Jovanovic is quick to add that the agency does not accept the exchange of people kidnapped after September 1st 1999. This is in order to prevent further abductions.


Clearly, the releases secured by OZNA could not have been achieved without the knowledge of the Serbian government and military courts of the Yugoslav Army.


It is probable that the regime does not want the public to find out that it is cooperating with the Kosovo Albanians. Therefore, it has decided to hide behind a private detective agency.


Reactions to such events are mixed.


It is clear, some Belgrade lawyers argue, that the releases are accomplished "outside the legal framework".


One of Serbia's opposition parties, Democratic Alternative (DA), says it is not clear whether the released Albanians were "guilty" of any crime and, if so, who gave them their freedom.


The three Albanians were detained during the conflict in Kosovo and were given sentences ranging from 12 to 14 months. Two of them served time in Pozarevac prison and one of them was detained in Sremska Mitrovica.


The released Serbs had been kidnapped by KLA members, after NATO ended their air strikes and the withdrawal of the Serbian police and army from Kosovo was underway.


It is believed that they were detained in a private prison somewhere in the vicinity of Kosovska Kamenica.


These prisons are still managed by the KLA, despite the presence of KFOR troops and UNMIK police -- the official successor to the Kosovo Liberation Army.


Of course, this is not the first time that the Yugoslav or Albanian sides have exchanged prisoners. Several similar deals were struck during the months of conflict prior to NATO's intervention.


At the beginning of 1999, the Yugoslav side secretly asked OSCE representatives to mediate in the release of eight soldiers abducted by the KLA.


Though Belgrade insisted it was an unconditional release, nine KLA members were exchanged for the eight Yugoslav soldiers.


The precise number of Serbs that the Albanians have detained and kidnapped is not known. At Musutiste, near Suva Reka, 160 Serbs were imprisoned, however it is thought they were taken elsewhere before the arrival of KFOR troops.


According to OZNA, there are three prisons in Albania where Serbs are held. They are located in Kukes, Tropoje and Ruhase.


All those captured and detained could be consoled by the fact that the exchanges are expected to continue. Even if they are outside the legal framework.


Milenko Vasovic is a journalist with Blic daily in Belgrade


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