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UCK veterans protest against the indictments of Hashim Thaci and Kadri Veseli for war crimes in Pristina in July.

Kosovar war veterans say that an unidentified man has again handed them files from a war crimes court in The Hague probing alleged crimes during and after the 1998-99 war, in what appears to be a security breach exposing protected witnesses.

It was the third such incident in two months that former rebel fighters reported receiving packages of court documents that include information on witnesses whose identities are meant to be protected to shield them from retribution.

A court spokesman warned that the veterans appeared to be trying to undermine the proper administration of justice.

Hysni Gucati, head of the association of former Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) fighters, said that the masked man delivered the files -- copies of the originals -- to the group's office on September 22 in the capital, Pristina.

"It would be good if the local prosecutor's office and the international ones probe and find who is bringing them and from where," Gucati said.

The Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) for war crimes is mandated to look into allegations that UCK members committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict.

It operates under Kosovar law but is based in the Netherlands to shield witnesses from intimidation.

Christopher Bennett, spokesman for the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) at the KSC, condemned the statements by the veterans group, which he said "has on a number of occasions engaged in activities which I believe are aimed at undermining the proper administration of justice."

Bennett also commended journalists who were offered a copy of the documents for not publishing the files and acknowledging that such action would amount to a criminal act.

"I want to take this opportunity to commend the ethical journalists throughout Kosovo who have refused to publish documents provided to them, as well as the multiple journalists who have voluntarily provided us with the documents they received from the KLA War Veterans Association and publicly acknowledged that participating in disseminating such information could be a crime under the Kosovo Criminal Code," Bennett said.

"The SPO is committed to vigorously investigating and prosecuting individuals who commit any such crimes, including the disclosure of the identity of individuals who may be called before the court or any information that could lead to their identification," he concluded.

Kosovar President Hashim Thaci, former parliament speaker Kadri Veseli, and others have been charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, enforced disappearances, persecution, and torture.

A pretrial judge hasn't made a decision on whether to proceed with their cases. Both Thaci and Veseli have denied committing any crimes.

A statement from the embassies of France, Germany, Italy, Britain, and the United States last week urged people not to discredit the court's mission.

Kosovo's war of independence from Serbia left more than 10,000 people dead -- most of them ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. More than 1,600 people remain unaccounted for. The fighting ended after a 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbia.

Kosovo, which has a largely ethnic Albanian population, declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move recognized by many Western states but not Serbia or its allies Russia and China.

With reporting by AP and AFP
State media strives to paint a rosy picture of living standards, claiming that Turkmenistan is living in an "era of greatness and happiness."

The Turkmen government’s inaction in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically worsened the country’s preexisting food crisis, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the exile group Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) said.

The tightly controlled Central Asian nation has been facing price hikes and a shortage of subsidized food since 2016.

The Turkmen government -- one of the most repressive in the world -- denies the existence of poverty in the country and has failed to provide relief to economically vulnerable groups, even as unemployment has skyrocketed during the pandemic, HRW and TIHR said in a report on September 23.

Titled Turkmenistan: Denial, Inaction Worsen Food Crisis, the report says that in the absence of a strategy to provide economic or social assistance to its people, the government is failing to meet its international obligations to ensure an adequate standard of living and the right to food.

“With no effort to identify and assist the people most in need at this critical moment, Turkmenistan is callously neglecting the most basic norms of human rights, which include the right to food,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.

Ordinary people describe in the report their plight amid the food shortages, price hikes, and poverty.

“Compared to a year ago, our family eats less,” a Turkmen father of eight told TIHR in July 2020. “That’s because we have less money, and [food] prices have gone up. We’ve had problems getting food due to the lines and the shortages.”

A Turkmen student told HRW in November 2019 that his family was spending 70 to 80 percent of their income on food. A Turkmen pensioner said her family was spending almost all their income on food.

The government’s only assistance program provides subsidized food in so-called state shops, an affordable alternative to privately owned shops selling food at market prices.

But supplies began to falter in 2015-16, after the global decline in oil prices started to hit the energy-rich nation’s state budget. Declining income from energy exports since 2014 and several poor harvests have constrained Turkmenistan’s food supplies.

“Our mother is the one who waits in lines at the state stores,” said Sapar, a father of eight. “She gets up every day between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and goes to stand in line.… Someone else may come to relieve her closer to the time the store opens. Lines may be three to four hours long until it’s your turn.”

State media do not report on the shortages. Instead, it strives to paint a rosy picture of living standards, claiming that the country is living in an “era of greatness and happiness” and frequently showing fully stocked, orderly shops.

Turkmenistan’s domestic food production only meets around 40 percent of national demand. The rest is imported, with 80 percent of the imported foodstuff coming from neighboring Iran.

In early 2020, the supply of subsidized food began to falter to an even greater degree, in part because of the border closure with Iran due to the pandemic. Some imported food products, such as potatoes from Iran, disappeared entirely, the report said.

In the past 12 months, the market price of flour rose by 50 percent and cooking oil by 130 percent, it said.

At the same time, the global economic downturn threw many Turkmen out of work and slashed the remittances upon which many Turkmen families survive, and Covid-19 travel restrictions prevented people from traveling abroad for work.

As a result, people in Turkmenistan faced even more uncertain, demeaning, and sometimes insurmountable obstacles to obtaining adequate food, the report said.

It called on the government to take immediate measures to make sure that people can get adequate food. The government should also commission an independent, nationwide household survey to assess poverty and food security, make the data public, and use the information to ensure effective, affordable access to adequate, nutritious food for all members of society, the rights groups said.

Beside the state stores, the government should consider other ways to protect people from food insecurity, TIHR and HRW said. These include food-voucher programs that allow people to purchase goods at private shops or the bazaar, or cash-transfer programs to people with incomes below the minimum subsistence level for an adequate standard of living.

The report said that Turkmen authorities should also reassess the contribution that currency controls -- limiting the ability to buy or sell foreign currency -- have on the rising prices of imported foods and the capacity to purchase food, and make appropriate changes to help ensure availability of and access to affordable food.

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