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Macedonia: Parliament Passes General Amnesty Law

Macedonia's parliament last night approved a general amnesty for former ethnic Albanian insurgents in a further step toward establishing peace and stability in the region. The amnesty law was a key element of the Ohrid peace accord signed in August that ended a six-month armed conflict. Political infighting and distrust stalled its passage, but Albanian and Macedonian political leaders as well as NATO and the EU are welcoming approval of the bill.

Prague, 8 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia's new law on general amnesty pardons "all those linked with the crisis" of last year. It won passage last night by a slim overall majority of MPs. Of the 120 members of parliament, 64 voted in favor of the bill, 12 voted against and eight abstained. Nearly one-third of the deputies boycotted the vote.

The Macedonian leadership has consistently denounced the ethnic Albanian rebels of the now-defunct National Liberation Army (UCK) as terrorists.

But UCK commanders have insisted they led the uprising not to break up Macedonia but for ethnic Macedonian parties to agree to equal rights for the country's Albanian community, which consists of up to one-third of Macedonia's 2 million inhabitants.

The amnesty only applies to Macedonian citizens. Albanians from Kosovo and southern Serbia's Presevo Valley who fought for the UCK are not covered. Nor will the amnesty apply to persons who committed war crimes or related acts that are under the jurisdiction of the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Many Macedonian MPs, particularly those on the right of the political spectrum, wanted to prosecute the insurgents and were opposed to ratifying President Boris Trajkovski's declaration of amnesty into law.

Under the decree, Trajkovski has amnestied 64 of the 88 former insurgents whom Macedonian security forces had taken prisoner.

Macedonian Justice Minister Ixhet Mehmeti opened the parliamentary debate yesterday by describing the amnesty's goals: "We are proposing passage of a law on amnesties that would create the conditions for accelerating the stabilization of the country, including the restoration of trust among citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, while creating the necessary conditions to finally emerge from the crisis."

The justice minister, an ethnic Albanian, in an interview with RFE/RL's Albanian unit today, expressed satisfaction with the passage of the law in the form he had proposed, without any amendment or modifications.

"The law on the general amnesty is very broad and fulfills all demands and clarifies all problems for the period of conflict in 2001 through 26 September 2001 [when the UCK disbanded and handed in its weapons]," Mehmeti said.

The UCK's former military chief of staff, General Gezim Ostreni, was equally supportive today: "The amnesty is a very important step. For us, the amnesty means peace, reconciliation, and reintegration into society for all those who contributed to reforms in Macedonia toward democracy and integration into Euro-Atlantic structures."

Another former UCK commander, Hajrulla Misini, who went by the nom de guerre of "Commander Shpati," told the French news agency AFP that the adoption of the law "is the biggest step toward reaching a peace settlement in Macedonia," adding that he sees "no further reason for armed conflict in Macedonia."

Cedomir Kraljevski, the parliamentary faction chief of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, said the law is intended "to turn former rebels into loyal citizens of Macedonia." In Kraljevski's words, "all arguments were against adopting the law except one: to give peace a chance."

"This is an expression of positive political will. This new law will intensify the process of reintegrating the territory affected by the crisis, the full resumption of mixed police patrols without opposition by the local population, and the return of full sovereignty of the Republic of Macedonia throughout its territory. And it creates the preconditions for the state to hold democratic elections," Kraljevski said.

In Brussels today, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson issued a statement welcoming passage of the amnesty law.

In Robertson's words, "This law is another critical step in the implementation of the Framework Agreement signed in Ohrid in August 2001 by all political parties in FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). I congratulate the government and the parliamentarians for their vision and courage in voting for this law. Their vote demonstrates their unwavering commitment to peace and stability in FYROM and lays the ground for reconciliation of all ethnic groups in the country."

Robertson said the future of Macedonia rests on respect for the rule of law and tolerance. And he said that in the wake of the 2001 crisis, "all communities deserve a return to normality." Robertson pledged that NATO will continue to support the efforts of the government at every step in the search for a lasting peace.

The EU's spokeswoman in Skopje, Irena Guzelova, said that by adopting the law, MPs "have taken a courageous and bold step toward peace, stability, and reconciliation."

Passage of the amnesty bill represents a key step in implementing the U.S. and EU-brokered Ohrid peace accords of August. But other measures provided for in the peace deal still remain to be implemented.

These include the deployment of ethnically mixed police patrols in communities that in 2001 were occupied by UCK insurgents. Out of 138 villages that the police were supposed to return to since October, nearly half remain off-limits to the police as Albanian vigilantes and splinter groups of the UCK continue to ward off outsiders.

The authorities hope that passage of the amnesty bill will result in complete government control of the remaining rebel-held areas.