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Money Buys Freedom for Albanians

Serbian human rights activists accuse judges and lawyers of profiting from imprisoned Albanians.
By Vlado Mares

Kosovo Albanians allege they have to pay Serb judges and lawyers to buy the release of their relatives held in Serbian prisons since the Kosovo war.


According to the International Crisis Group, many prisoners' families have been effectively ransomed by Serbian lawyers. Reports suggest that Albanians are paying lawyers between 10,000 and 50,000 German marks to free detained relatives.


A family from the Drenica region in Kosovo said they were recently quoted 15,000 German marks to buy the freedom of their cousin, taken with hundreds of other Albanians when the Serb army and police withdrew from Kosovo in 1999.The family does not have the funds and has appealed to fellow villagers to help them raise the money.


Albanians are having to resort to bribes because of Belgrade's reluctance to release the detainees who, some believe, have effectively become hostages. There's little the international community can do as the Kumanovo agreement which ended the war in Kosovo failed to address the fate of prisoners.


There is no independent data on the number of Albanians in Serbian prisons, or on how many have been released so far. In April, Serbia's Justice Minister, Dragoljub Jankovic, told journalists that 1,071 people had been freed from 31 prisons, but around 960 Albanians were still being held.


Many do not even know what charges they face. Under outside pressure, Serbia's courts earlier this year began to process dozens of cases, sentencing prisoners to lengthy jail terms - a move severely criticised by the international community. In May, 143 ethnic Albanians were convicted on terrorism charges, receiving prison sentences of between 7 to 13 years.


But Albanian political analysts believe the Belgrade authorities have recently begun to change their approach, in an apparent effort to show themselves in a more tolerant light. They say prisoners charged with terrorism are being sentenced to the exact time they have already spent in jail and promptly released.


In a recent case in Pozarevac, the so-called Orahovac group of 24 Albanians were each sentenced to two years in prison for terrorism and hostile activities. They were charged with barricading the Bela Crkva-Orahovac road on 18 July 1998, when the Serbs said shots were fired, killing a policeman and wounding others.


Despite the gravity of the charge, the Albanians were released three days after judgment on July 21, when their two-year sentences came to an end.


In some cases, money is clearly changing hands. Pristina's "Dita" reported on July 22 that 27 Albanians had been released from jails in Sremska Mitrovica and Nis, at a cost of 10,000 German marks each.


Natasa Kandic, Director of the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Centre, said recently that the release of Albanians was a result of background diplomatic pressure.


She warned though that there were a number of lawyers and judges making large amounts out of the imprisoned Albanians.


Albanian families are said to get in touch with local lawyers with good legal connections in Serbia. It's thought the local lawyer establishes a price to cover his fee, that of the lawyer in Serbia and a sum for the judge who is to order the release. The cost is said to vary according to the importance of the prisoner, the wealth of his family or the gravity of the act he is charged with.


Albanians say such bribery existed long before the NATO intervention. They say judges, defendants, lawyers and clients all know exactly how the system works.


Gordana Igric is IWPR's Balkans Editor and Vlado Mares is a regular IWPR contributor


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