Kosovo Officers Under Investigation

Internationals say they have incriminating material on former guerrilla commanders, but many Albanians believe it’s a witch-hunt.

Kosovo Officers Under Investigation

Internationals say they have incriminating material on former guerrilla commanders, but many Albanians believe it’s a witch-hunt.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

United Nations administrators in Kosovo have caused a political storm by suspending 12 officers from its civil defence force on suspicion that they were involved in serious crimes.

The 12 – all of them former guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, now serving in the Kosovo Protection Corps, KPC - are subject to a police investigation into their possible involvement in a bomb attack on a bridge in March this year.

The KPC’s commander Lieutenant-General Agim Ceku reacted angrily, saying there was no evidence against his men.

The suspension has led to a dispute in which the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, insists it is has sound reasons for its actions, while Albanian officials in the KPC say the UN will not be able to prove anything against the men.

The controversy illustrates the gap in perceptions between the internationals and the local Albanians, who have very different views on justice in Kosovo.

A statement released by UNMIK and NATO’s force in Kosovo, KFOR, on December 3 said the officers would be suspended for six months on full pay while a police investigation takes place into their alleged role in a bomb attack earlier this year.

Two people, one identified as a KPC member, were killed in April while planting explosives which damaged a railway bridge linking Kosovo with Serbia. The Albanian National Army, ANA, a shadowy group with links to the former KLA, claimed responsibility for the blast and was subsequently declared a terrorist organisation by UNMIK.

The statement said Harri Holkeri, Special Representative for Kosovo, “was not prejudging the investigation’s result or presuming guilt”, but the initial findings of a joint UNMIK-KFOR inquiry were sufficiently serious to merit suspending the officers.

The suspensions were the toughest action international administrators have yet taken against members of the 3,000-strong KPC since it was set up four years ago, incorporating many members of the KLA which was disbanded after the 1998-99 conflict.

The corps was designed to provide a civilian role for former KLA guerrillas, and although its mandate is non-military and covers missions such as reconstruction and disaster relief, many Kosovo Albanians see it as the nucleus of a future army for an independent state.

The force has been subject to a major investigation by KFOR lasting seven months, in the course of which the 150 people initially questioned were whittled down to 12. The investigation was initially only about the bridge bombing, but UNMIK officials say they have also been looking at allegations of KPC involvement in human and drug trafficking, which came to light along the way.

Commanders of the force were angered by the decision to exclude their colleagues. Ceku’s immediate reaction was to say he would not comply with the UN decision.

“I and the KPC regard this decision as unfounded, with no facts and no evidence,” he told journalists after meeting UNMIK officials the day the suspensions were announced. At one point last week he threatened to resign over the issue.

But after a long meeting, KPC spokesman Shemsi Syla said that officers had decided to accept the suspension for the sake of not harming the force, and maintaining relations with the international community. But KPC leaders are demanding that the suspensions be lifted if the officers are proved innocent.

One of the reasons the KPC is upset is that senior officers feel that they have made a big effort to clean it up – of the 65 officers dismissed in 2003, 48 were removed at Ceku’s recommendation and the rest by KFOR.

Brigadier-General Nuredin Lushtaku, 36, is one of the accused. “I blush in front of people when I think of these serious accusations that have unjustly stained my reputation,” he told IWPR, sitting at home in Skenderaj/Srbica town in the Drenica region, 30 km west of Kosovo.

Izet Aliu, another suspended officer, said, “The decision will remain unacceptable for me because it has no legal foundation.”

Lushtaku believes investigators have no evidence to link him with the crime, and he thinks that the decision to suspend him was taken for political rather than legal reasons.

“This is a political attack against the KPC, as it is clear KFOR and UNMIK want to remove KLA elements from the organisation,” he said.

An international official, who asked not to be named, told IWPR that he had seen the files on the suspended officers, and these contained insufficient evidence to stand up in court.

“The formal accusations are vague because KFOR does not really have substantial proof at the moment. A lot of intelligence material has been picked up from the intelligence that Serbia and Macedonia have on KPC or ex-KLA members,” the official said.

He described the investigation as a “witch-hunt” against the KPC.

But official spokesmen for both UNMIK and KFOR defended their action and the lack of clear charges, saying they did have enough information to warrant an investigation, but that they could not reveal it.

KFOR spokesman Chris Thompson denied that the decision was taken on political grounds. “We have sufficient information to suspend them, and we started working on investigating these cases after the April 3 bridge attack on the bridge,” he said.

UNMIK spokesman Christian Lindmeier said, “It is precisely because we have suspicions about serious criminal activities that we can't reveal the details.” He added that disclosing specific information about the alleged crimes at this early point might make it difficult to collect evidence and get witnesses to talk.

Despite these assurances, many analysts continue to believe that political factors did play a part in the internationals’ decision.

Baton Haxhiu, a political commentator in Kosovo, thinks it unlikely that UNMIK has any evidence of links between the officers and the ANA. “If they had been involved in terrorist activities, UNMIK would probably have put them behind bars, rather than suspend them on full pay,” he said.

Instead, Haxhiu believes the internationals are on a mission to purge the KPC of some of its more unreliable elements.

“The KPC is a very sensitive institution, in that it contains people with low ranks but high levels of authority, feeding off their wartime reputations, “ he said. “ And wartime reputations don't make suitable people for peace. Purging the KPC of the wartime meritocracy is a very difficult job, and that is what I think UNMIK is trying to do with these suspensions.”

The perception that the case against the officers is politically motivated and not backed by evidence may present Kosovo’s administrators with a credibility problem. Added to this, many Albanians remember the KLA as heroes and are hostile to any move to prosecute former members for past crimes.

The secrecy surrounding the latest cases worries Kosovo’s ombudsman, Marek Antoni Nowicki. He told IWPR that previous legal proceedings begun by UNMIK and KFOR show a disturbing pattern – the absence of effective investigation, failure to keep all parties informed about developments and a lack of recourse for those being investigated.

But there is little the ombudsman can do about it since he has no right to act on behalf of Kosovo residents against the internationals.“SRSG [Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Holkeri] can do whatever he considers appropriate, and an SRSG decision is above the law,” said Nowicki. “Why have regulations if SRSG can question everything?”

There is a perception among Kosovo Albanians that UNMIK launches numerous investigations into ex-KLA men turned KPC officers but rarely produces enough solid evidence to secure a conviction.

This picture is not entirely accurate. Figures obtained from UNMIK’s public information office show that of the 262 KPC officers dismissed since 2001, 20 have been convicted of crimes committed after the UN administration was established in June 1999. In addition, in the last year there have also been two high-profile trials in which Daut Haradinaj, Rustam Mustafa and seven others were convicted of killings carried out during the Kosovo conflict.

It is true that in some cases police investigations fail to deliver results, in part because investigators looking for witnesses and evidence run into a brick wall of community solidarity, or fear of reprisals.

Such inconclusive cases tend to boost the widespread view among Albanians that the internationals act more from political motives than judicial reasons

Rexhep Selimi, who was one of five KPC officers suspended in 2001 after their names appeared on a US blacklist, has been neither charged nor allowed to return to work since then.

“I have written letters, but even two years after my suspension, the international authorities in Kosovo have not answered my appeals to know what the specific charges against me are, and why I am blacklisted,” Selimi told IWPR.

There are fears that the latest batch of officers to be suspended may find themselves in a similar limbo after the six month investigation period runs out with no charges brought against them. KPC officials have warned that they will file a case with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if UNMIK police and KFOR do not come up with substantial evidence.

Artan Mustafa is a journalist for KosovaLive news agency. Jeta Xharra is IWPR’s Kosovo project manager.

Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo
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