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Kosovars Shrug Off Blame for March Riots

Wave of arrests for violence elicits hostility from most local people.
By Muhamet Hajrullahu

Scores of international investigators arrived in Kosovo this week to bolster efforts to bring to justice perpetrators of the riots that convulsed the region in March.

It comes amid vocal ethnic Albanian opposition to the prosecution of members of their community for the strife.

The sixty-one investigators - from Turkey, the Philippines, Romania, China, Fiji and Bangladesh - will work with local police to build cases against those suspected of responsibility for the two days of violence.

UNMIK and the local judiciary has so far charged dozens of people for the rioting, the worst outbreak of unrest that Kosovo has seen since 1999.

Nineteen died, nearly 900 were wounded and 4,500, mainly Serbs, were forced from their homes, in the violence that erupted after three Albanian children drowned in the river running through the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica.

Neeraj Singh, spokesperson for UNMIK Department of Justice, last week announced new indictments against three Albanians and one Serb, from north Mitrovica, the Serbian-run half of the town.

Hakif Mehmeti, Xhevdet Sylejmani and Driton Zeqiri face charges varying from inciting riots in Mitrovica to setting fire to Serbian homes in Gjilane and attacking police officers in Prizren. The Serb, Zivorad Cvetkovic, has been indicted for a grenade attack on KFOR soldiers in Mitrovica.

Kosovo’s international prosecutor is currently handling 52 of the most serious cases, involving deaths, the burning of Serb homes and churches and the organisation of the riots.

The local courts - dealing with 200 more minor cases, relating to theft, arson and breaches of the peace - have already issued 15 convictions ranging from two to six months’ imprisonment, to fines of around 100 euro.

Rifat Abdullahu, president of the Ferizaj municipal court, said sentencing people over the March riots had not been easy for Albanian judges, “There is pressure and criticism from citizens who disapprove of these trials.

“But we stuck to procedure and several people in my municipality have been sentenced from 4 to 6 months imprisonment.”

Kosovo’s majority community is broadly hostile to the prosecution of Albanians in connection with the riots, which a number of commentators have blamed on outsiders.

Reshat Sahitaj, a columnist on the nationalist daily Epoka e Re, claimed the unrest was the work of mercenaries. “Every Albanian knows that Serb churches were not burned by protestors but by individuals paid for by some neighbouring country,” he wrote.

A widespread denial of all responsibility for the violence has been reinforced by the stance of one of Kosovo’s oldest local organisations, the Council for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, KLMDNJ.

Bexhet Shala, director of KLMDNJ, told IWPR that his body disapproved of UNMIK police and KFOR investigations into the riots, as they had made arrests on the basis of video footage alone.

“To accuse someone of a serious crime such as burning houses or murder, videos are not enough,” Shala said. “There has to be additional evidence to back up the accusation.”

Shala said the wave of arrests since March 17 was “just another UNMIK attempt to sweep responsibility off their own shoulders and blame Kosovar citizens”.

Public discontent rose sharply on April 28 with the arrest of Sami Lushtaku, a high profile former warlord in the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, from the Drenica region.

Several thousand locals from Drenica, the old heartland of the KLA, protested the next day, demanding Lushtaku’s release. Three war veterans’ associations also issued a warning to UNMIK, saying it should “stop, or face protests throughout Kosovo”.

A letter from Nexhmi Lajçi, the head of the war veterans association in Pec/Peja, imprisoned for his involvement in the riots, was read out at a war commemoration this week - portraying the unrest as a “gesture against a modern occupation”.

Most Albanian politicians have referred to the riots in terms of a spontaneous popular revolt, rather than a series of criminal acts whose perpetrators need to face justice.

Some legal experts have also supported the view that the March trouble was more political than criminal. Destan Rukiqi, a Pristina lawyer, said it was wrong to overplay the level of criminal intent “in the event of protests and riots, where people are [simply] expressing their dissatisfaction”.

Arben Salihu, Muhamet Hajrullahu and Zana Limani are trainees on the IWPR primary journalism course, which is supported by the OSCE.

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