Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbs Languish In Kosovo Jails

Human rights activists accuse KFOR of being a silent accomplice to the imprisonment of scores of Kosovo Serb civilians
By IWPR

Scores of Kosovo Serb civilians abducted by local Albanians are being held in a number of small prisons across the province, a local branch of the international human rights organization, the Helsinki Committee has revealed.


The prisons, the exact number of which is unknown, are run by the Kosovo Protection Force, according to Committee officials. Captives, they say, have been badly treated - some are known to have died after being tortured.


Members of a branch of the Helsinki Committee in the predominantly Muslim Sandzak region, straddling the border between Montenegro and Serbia, recently visited five such prisons - in Dobra Voda, Peja, Djackovica, Studenica and Drenovac - where around 142 Serbs were being held.


"At the beginning the treatment of the prisoners was terrible - now conditions are much better because captives are being prepared for exchanges with the Albanians in Serbian prison, " said the president of the Sandzak Helsinki Committee President, Sefko Alomerovic.


There are also reports of Serbs and Albanians being held in prisons in northern Albania. "There were two camps. One in Kukes and the other in Tropoja. While I was there I saw many people who were not Albanians. We weren't allowed to make contact with them, but they could only be Serbs," one former Albanian detainee told Amnesty International.


The Helsinki Committee has passed on its research to KFOR, but its apparent failure to launch a full investigation into the findings has prompted Alomerovic to accuse the alliance of being a silent accomplice to Serb imprisonment. He claims that immediately after KFOR was notified of the camp locations, the prisoners were moved to other sites.


The Helsinki Committee's discovery follows growing concern over the whereabouts of hundreds of local Serbs who have been kidnapped by Kosovo Liberation Army, UCK, fighters.


In January, a Belgrade-based association representing the families of abducted Serbs gave Alomerovic a file containing a list of nearly 500 kidnapped Serbs with comprehensive details of their abductions. The association says it is also looking into the disappearance of a further 700 Serbs.


The kidnapping of Kosovo Serbs began almost two years ago, coinciding with the increase in UCK guerrillas activity in the province.


According to the independent Belgrade-based human rights group, the Humanitarian Law Centre, UCK fighters set up checkpoints in areas they controlled, stopping buses in search of Serb security officials - around 100 people were seized. Most of them, however, were civilians.


The Albanian militants also employed kidnapping as an instrument of terror, abducting Serb villagers and threatening their neighbours with a similar fate unless they abandoned their homes.


The Humanitarian Law Centre says many of the kidnap victims were held in UCK run prisons, and interviews with former detainees revealed that inmates were regularly beaten.


Following the arrival of NATO, kidnapping continued to be used to terrorise Serbs into leaving their homes but increasingly abductions have been carried out with a view to exchanging capitives for Albanians held in Serbia proper.


Estimates of the number of Kosovo Albanians imprisoned by the Serbs range from 2,000 to 3,000. They include combatants and many civilians, including some reportedly snatched as Serb forces left the province a year ago.


Many of the inmates are maltreated, have no idea what charges they face and are denied access to lawyers.


Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, all prisoners of war should have been released once the Kosovo war came to an end. The Yugoslav authorities argue that the treaty does not apply because the conflict was internal rather than international.


The West challenges this, yet when the NATO signed the Kumanovo agreement with the Yugoslav Army prior to its departure from Kosovo, they left the issue of prisoner releases off the document.


As a result, international agencies find themselves operating in a grey area. The ICRC, for example, argues that even though it visits Albanians detained in Serb jails, it cannot advocate their release because Kosovo is still technically part of Yugoslavia, not a foreign state.


There have been some prisoner exchanges since the end of the conflict, but the vast majority of detainees appear to have little hope of early release.


As a result, some families of detained Serbs and Albanians have tried to arrange exchanges privately through well-connected friends or by bribing officials. Some have even employed a Serbian detective agency. (See BCR No. 118 - Detective Offers Kosovo PoW Hope)


More disturbingly, there are cases of Serbian lawyers ransoming their clients to their families back in Kosovo. And in Podujevo, close to the provincial border with Serbia, and unofficial "prisoner market" is said to operate.


Miroslav Filipovic is a regular IWPR contributor based in Kraljevo.


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