Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians staged a protest in Kosovo's capital Pristina on Wednesday to demand the release of Kosovo Albanians still held in Serbian jails. Almost a year after the Kosovo conflict ended, thousands of Kosovar Albanian prisoners remain behind bars in Serbia. Taken by retreating Serbian forces, many of the prisoners face charges of terrorism -- and long prison sentences. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports.
Prague, 27 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ten months after the end of the Kosovo conflict, more than 2,000 Kosovar Albanians remain in Serbian jails. Most of them were arrested before and during NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia last spring, and now many of them are being held without formal charges and with no possibility of legal counsel.
In response to international protests over the imprisoned Albanians, Serbian Justice Minister Dragoljub Jankovic last week organized a visit to a prison in Pozarevac, Yugoslavia, where some prominent Kosovars are being held. Jankovic invited domestic and foreign journalists to accompany him on the visit to try to demonstrate that the Yugoslav regime has nothing to hide.
Jugoslav Cosic of RFE/RL's South Slavic Service took part in the visit and interviewed Albin Kurti, a 25-year-old student leader. Last month, Kurti was sentenced to a 15-year prison term by a Serbian court that found him guilty of having been a member of the now disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK. Belgrade regards the UCK as a terrorist organization.
Both in and out of prison, Kurti has been an outspoken critic of the Yugoslav regime. In the years before NATO's air campaign, he was a chief organizer of students who protested Serbian crackdowns against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Today, after more than a year in custody, Kurti still refuses to accept a court-appointed lawyer and says he will not appeal his sentence.
Kurti says he does not recognize the state of Serbia and its laws. He calls himself a political prisoner and says all Kosovars jailed in Serbia are being held unjustly:
"All the Albanian political prisoners here are being held from the very beginning in an unjust way. Just because they are Albanians. And this is the main reason why I don't like to talk about facilities or conditions here. All the Albanians are here sentenced in prison as a result of some so-called courts and trials which are based on injustice and on false things. Everything which came out from the regime, this anti-human regime of [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic, is false, is falsehood."
Natasha Kandic is a well-known lawyer for the Humanitarian Law Center, a Yugoslav human-rights group with offices in Pristina and Belgrade. She says that Kosovo Albanian prisoners are being held in violation of Yugoslav as well as international law.
The Humanitarian Law Center is one of the few organizations providing legal representation and counsel to Kosovar Albanians in Serbian prisons. Part of Kandic's work involves identifying prisoners who are being held in Serbian jails without formal charges and without being listed on official prisoner lists. She says:
"Many times we [tried] to ask UNMIK, [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 that, while the international community was negotiating with the Yugoslav government to end the NATO bombing, it 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."
A spokeswoman for the office of the UN secretary-general, Marie Okabe, said that the issue of political prisoners was only one of many not covered by UN Security Council Resolution 1244, passed after Belgrade agreed to allow international peacekeepers into Kosovo. In a telephone interview with our correspondent, Okabe said that when NATO began negotiations with the Yugoslav government to end the air strikes, the UN was not aware of the large numbers of political prisoners being held in Serbian jails. That, she said, made it impossible to give high priority to the issue.
Over the past nine months, some 250 Kosovar Albanians have been set free, but the reasons for their releases -- as for their detention -- remain unclear. At the same time, the pace of the trials that are convicting and sentencing Kosovar Albanians has picked up.
Last week, the largest-ever mass trial for Kosovar Albanians began in the Yugoslav city of Nis. Some 140 Kosovo Albanians are accused of taking part in attacks against Serbian forces during last year's NATO air strikes.
The defendants are charged with forming a unit of the separatist UCK army in the western Kosovo town of Djakovica last April. The prosecution says they were involved in three attacks against Serbian forces, in which a policeman and an army officer were killed, a soldier fatally wounded and six policemen seriously wounded.
Human rights lawyer Kandic and others say it is unlikely any of these defendants or others languishing in Serbian prisons will be found innocent. She worries that, without strong international pressure, the Albanians taken by retreating Serbian forces will never see Kosovo again.