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

Small Breakthrough For Families Of Kosovars Imprisoned In Serbia

Fifty-four Kosovar Albanians were released Tuesday from a Serbian prison and allowed to return to their families in the province, but a leading rights activist says the UN authorities must do more to help.
By Laura Rozen

Some evidence of cooperation between Serbs, Albanians and internationals on one front emerged Tuesday as 54 Kosovar Albanians were released by the Serbian Ministry of Justice from a Serbian prison and allowed to return to their families in the province.


The release came just hours after KFOR peacekeepers broke through and dismantled a road block in Kosovo Polje where Serbs and Albanians have faced off against each other for the past few days.


The lucky 54 - some of the more than 1,960 Kosovo Albanians who the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says they have registered in Serbian prisons - are said to have been arrested by Serb forces in Kosovo villages in May and taken back to the Sremska Mitrovica prison in Serbia.


Never formally charged, the 54 detainees received no release papers from the Serbian Ministry of Justice saying why they had been let go, before they boarded a bus, and were transported by the ICRC to Pristina.


Some of them had no idea they were to be released, according to a member of a commission on the missing and imprisoned which met Tuesday in Pristina. The release Tuesday follows the June 25 release of 166 Kosovar Albanians from Serbian prisons.


It came on the day of the second meeting of a special commission on the missing and imprisoned formed under the auspices of the United Nations mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), with members drawn from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and several Kosovar NGOs.


Barbara Davis, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights representative in the former Yugoslavia, says the very existence of the commission on the missing is an expression of civil society at work in Kosovo.


In particular, she says, the commission brings together legal professionals and advocates across ethnic lines to push for the larger goal of locating all people who have gone missing in Kosovo before, during and after the Kosovo conflict. These include some of the more than 5,000 people that Kosovo Albanians say are still missing after the war.


"What is important to note is that the commission has received cooperation from the Serbian Ministry of Justice as well," Davis said following the commission meeting Tuesday in Pristina. "And the Serbian Ministry of Justice has reviewed the goals of the commission and no one has rejected them. There is at least a working and delicate consensus."


But Natasa Kandic, the head of the Humanitarian Law Centre with offices in Belgrade and Pristina, says the latest release and the good work of the commission fail to mask the failure of UNMIK to spearhead efforts to establish dialogue with the Serbian authorities.


UNMIK needs to establish regular procedures by which families of the imprisoned can visit their relatives and seek legal representation for them, she said. "The UNMIK has a whole legal department full of legal experts," Kandic said by phone Tuesday from Belgrade. "But even now, more than three months into the peace, nobody in the UN administration is working to establish some kind of procedure with the Serbian Ministry of Justice on this issue.


"Ordinary people from Kosovo who have relatives in the prisons in Serbia still have big problems trying to find out what's happened to their family members, find out which prison they are in, and trying to contact their family members."


Kandic said she was held for four hours Monday by Serb police near Podujevo when she drove with two ethnic Albanian women family members of the imprisoned and an ethnic Albanian lawyer, from Pristina to Belgrade.


After holding them, Serb police turned Kandic and the others back to Kosovo, saying they had orders not to let the ethnic Albanians in. Kandic said they then proceeded to cross into Serbia at Leskovac, where a Serb police checkpoint let them through.


The incident is very serious, Kandic said, because it means that some element of the Serbian police and justice system do not recognise the right that exists under Serbian and Yugoslav law for ethnic Albanian prisoners to have legal representation, or for family members to have visitation rights. "It means that everything is not in accordance with the law," Kandic worries.


"In one checkpoint, Albanians with proper documents can be stopped, and on another checkpoint, everything will be okay. It means that everything is without any procedure, because under Serbian and Yugoslav law, citizens have the right to visit prisoners, and also prisoners have the right to have legal counsel."


Kandic, a Serb who uses existing Serbian and Yugoslav law to help further the cause of human rights for people of all ethnicities in Yugoslavia, says the prisoner issue needs to be broken down from its overwhelming proportions and attacked case by case.


She says the priority is to work for the Serbian Ministry of Justice to release some of the more than 20 imprisoned Kosovo Albanians boys under the age of 18 being held in Serbian jails.


She said, after that, she will work for the release of some of the 200 Kosovo Albanian political prisoners being held in Serbian jails who are wounded - many as a result of NATO's bombing of the Dubrava prison.


Kandic says she has tried to pursue rumors that some families of Kosovo Albanian political prisoners have bought the release of their family members, for a rumoured price tag of 50,000 German marks. However she said she has not yet been able to turn up a single name of someone who has actually won freedom this way.


She says also of concern is some 450 Serbs and Roma Kosovars who have gone missing since KFOR troops arrived in mid-June. She says several Roma have given credible testimony that the Kosovo Liberation Army maintains some private prisons in Kosovo.


She says she has also learned of the release of some non-Albanian Kosovars from KLA prisons after the intervention of high level KLA officials, who she would not name.


Laura Rozen is a regular correspondent for IWPR in Kosovo.