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Yugoslavia: Hundreds Of Kosovar Albanians Remain In Serbian Prisons

  • Alexandra Poolos

Some 1,700 Kosovar Albanians are still being held in Serbian prisons. Most of the prisoners were arrested both before and during NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia last Spring, and many of them are being held without formal charges and with no possibility of legal counsel. During a recent visit to Kosovo, RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos met with one Kosovar Albanian who was recently released from a Serbian jail.

Kashica, Kosovo; 8 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Tahir Bojraktari has only just begun to feel free. Although most of his eight-member family returned to Kashica more than five months ago, Bojraktari came back to his small village nestled in the mountains of western Kosovo only last month. Bojraktari had been held for six months and six days in a Serbian prison, and he says he thought he would never see his home or family again.

Bojraktari is one of the hundreds of Kosovar Albanians imprisoned by Serbian forces before and during the NATO bombings. He considers himself particularly lucky because he was released, along with 13 others, on November 12.

A lawyer in the neighboring town of Peja, Bojraktari was arrested with 84 other Albanians in May. He says that most of the men were young and were chosen arbitrarily. But he believes he was taken because he was known as an intellectual:

"I was active in our life here ... Four of the policemen who arrested us were wearing masks. They ... probably knew who I was, and simply picked me out."

Bojraktari's family did not know where he was for most of his absence. Held in the southern Serbian jail of Leskovac, Bojraktari had no formal charges made against him. He says he and other Albanians were interrogated every night by their Serbian jailers, who attempted to get them to sign documents admitting they were UCK [Kosovo Liberation Army] terrorists. He described the prison's conditions to our correspondent:

"The conditions were medieval. There was a lack of basic heating and food -- and what food we had was of very poor quality.... We slept on cement. We had a lot of trouble in our mental attitudes."

Bojraktari said the prisoners were often beaten and tortured:

"The beatings always took place during the night or early in the morning -- around 3 a.m. It was systematic. And most of the beaten were young fellows. We asked for lawyers, but the Serb jailers said that, in such situations, you can't have a lawyer."

But Bojraktari also said that, during his internment, he was visited by Serbian lawyers who demanded money in exchange for his release. Many prisoners gave what money they had to these lawyers -- but they were not released.

In September, Bojraktari was visited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It was the ICRC which notified Bojraktari's family of his detention in Serbia. The family had thought he was dead and buried in an unknown mass grave.

According to ICRC estimates, more than 1,700 Albanians are still being held in Serbian prisons. Many were taken during the NATO bombings, as Serbian forces retreated. Close to 350 are being detained without any charges and are not listed on official lists provided by Serbian authorities.

Natasha Kandic is a well-known lawyer for the human-rights group, the Humanitarian Law Center, based in Pristina and Belgrade. She says these prisoners are being held in violation of Yugoslav and international law:

"Many times we [tried] to ask [the UN civil mission in Kosovo] to [take action on] this issue and to establish some strategy [for solving] this problem -- the problem of Albanian prisoners in Serbian jails -- and to make some link with the missing Albanians, because based on different sources from Kosovo, a few thousand Albanians are missing."

Kandic says while negotiating with the Yugoslav government for the end of the NATO bombings, the international community forgot about the Kosovars who were taken prisoner:

"The [UN didn't] know what to do. They [didn't] have enough [latitude] in their mandate to solve this problem. Because in the agreement signed by Serbian [authorities] and the international community, [there was no] mention of prisoners and missing persons. But this was a [major] problem."

Marie Okabe is a spokeswoman for the Secretary-General's office at the Untied Nations in New York. She told RFE/RL by telephone that political prisoners were just one of many issues not covered by UN Security Council Resolution 1244, passed after Belgrade agreed to allow international peacekeepers into Kosovo. She said that during the time of the negotiations with the Yugoslav government to end NATO airstrikes, the UN was not aware of the large numbers of political prisoners being held in Serbian jails. She also said the UN's lack of information prevented it from giving high priority to the issue.

But Red Cross spokesman Pierre Kraehenbuehl tells RFE/RL the UN had dealt with the issue of political prisoners in the Balkans before:

"In the Dayton peace agreement [on Bosnia], you have specific provisions for that -- [and] in the framework of [the failed] Rambouillet [negotiations on Kosovo] as well. In the agreements subsequent to the end of the conflict in Yugoslavia, you don't have that. ... You don't have that [either] in the UN Security Council's Resolution 1244. You don't have that in the military-technical agreement between NATO and the Yugoslav army. And that has resulted in a situation where the prisoners today are in one way or another in a vacuum that really has to be addressed at political levels."

Kraehenbuehl says that the ICRC cannot directly control the release of Kosovar prisoners. In July, the Red Cross was granted permission by the Yugoslav government to visit Serb prisons. Since that time, the organization has focused on confirming which Kosovar Albanians are in detention and notifying families of their whereabouts. The ICRC's hope is that the information will generate political support for their release.

Since July, some 250 Kosovar Albanians have been set free, but the reason for their releases -- as was true of their detention -- remains unclear. Bojraktari says he still does not know exactly why the Serbian Supreme Court decided on his release. He had been held without formal charges for over six month when the police came to his cell:

"I didn't know I was released until they yelled, 'Bojraktari, you are changing rooms.' When I got out in the hall, there were 13 people waiting. They pushed us all into two police cars and began driving in an unknown direction. I has no idea I was to be released. When we arrived at the [Kosovo] border, we didn't know where we are going. But when we saw the [international peacekeeping] KFOR soldiers, we began to realize that we were in fact at the border." Bojraktari cried as he recounted the day he was set free. He said that, although he is grateful he was not killed, he worries now about the many others still detained in Serbia, and worries that the world has forgotten about them.

Meanwhile, arrests are continuing. Over the past weekend (Dec. 3), an ethnic Albanian lawyer for the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC), Teki Bokshi, was arrested in northwestern Serbia just two days before he was due to defend Kosovar Albanians being held in Serbian jails.

According to HLC information, Bokshi had been visiting prisoners in a jail in northwestern Serbia when he was stopped by plain-clothes Serb policemen driving an unmarked car with Yugoslav Interior Ministry license plates. Bokshi was accompanied by two other lawyers, who say he was taken into custody without explanation.

HLC director Kandic says the arrest was meant to thwart the activities of her lawyers, who are the only Albanians with access to Kosovars imprisoned in Serbia. Amid an international outcry over Bokshi's arrest, the UN has demanded an explanation from the Yugoslav authorities. But so far Serbian officials have been silent -- as they have been in so many other cases for months.