April 4, 2008

As you know, Human Rights Watch has long documented violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in the Balkans. For almost two decades, we have been active in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, investigating human rights abuses committed by all sides and publishing numerous reports detailing violations. We have repeatedly called for violations to cease or, where there were credible but as yet unconfirmed allegations, to be investigated, and for the responsible individuals to be prosecuted. I am writing to you now to urge that a thorough investigation be carried out into allegations of atrocities committed during 1999 that have recently been placed into the public sphere.

In recent weeks, sections of a new book by Carla Del Ponte, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), appeared in the media. The book will appear shortly in Italian, and after that in English.

Among other things, Ms. Del Ponte presents information about serious crimes allegedly committed in Kosovo and Albania after June 12, 1999, when NATO forces entered the province. We have obtained a copy of Del Ponte’s pre-publication text, and, based upon a close reading of the information she presents, as well as information provided to Human Rights Watch prior to Del Ponte’s book, we consider the circumstantial evidence she presents to be sufficiently grave to warrant further investigation. We therefore urge you to initiate a thorough investigation, in cooperation with your Albania counterparts, in order to determine the veracity of Del Ponte’s claims and to ensure that anyone found responsible for such crimes is held accountable in a court of law. What is more, such an investigation may help clarify the fate of between 100 and 300 persons, most of them ethnic Serbs, who went missing after June 1999.

According to Del Ponte, the Tribunal received information from credible sources that Kosovo Albanians transported by truck between 100 and 300 persons from Kosovo into northern Albania after June 12, 1999. The individuals were then reportedly held in warehouses and other buildings, including facilities in Kukës and Tropoje. Some of the younger, healthier captives were allegedly fed, examined by doctors, and never beaten. According to the information provided to Del Ponte, these abducted individuals were later transferred to a facility in or around Burrel, where doctors extracted the captives’ internal organs. These organs were then transported out of Albania via Rinas airport near Tirana, now Mother Theresa airport.

According to the information provided to Del Ponte, most of the victims were Serbs who had gone missing after the arrival of the UN and NATO forces in Kosovo. But other captives were women from Kosovo, Albania, Russia, and other Slavic countries. According to the information received by the ICTY, the bodies of the victims may be buried near what was then a yellow house and nearby graveyard about 20 kilometers south of Burrel. Tribunal investigators inspected what they believed to be the house and found medical equipment used in surgery and traces of blood, although they were unable to determine if the blood was human.

Del Ponte cites sources who reported to the ICTY that the smuggling operation occurred with the knowledge of mid- and high-level members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. It also allegedly required the cooperation of Albania’s secret service, the Sherbimi Informative Kombetare (SHIK).

Human Rights Watch has not investigated these claims. But we are aware of the large number of persons who went missing after June 12, 1999, with 2,047 still unaccounted for. Having reviewed Del Ponte’s material, we find the circumstantial evidence she presents compelling, and we believe further investigation is crucial.

The construction of states based on justice and the rule of law requires an honest assessment of the past, with accountability for those who committed crimes. We believe the material presented in Del Ponte’s book merits a prompt and independent investigation into these alleged criminal acts, followed by prosecution of anyone found to have violated the law. To help identify the witnesses, it would also be pivotal to cooperate with the Belgrade War Crimes Chamber, which has already launched its own investigation into this matter.

I thank you for your attention and I look forward to hearing from you within a reasonable amount of time on steps you plan to take to discover further facts related to these alleged events and, if the evidence warrants, to prosecute individuals suspected of participating in them.

Sincerely,

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia

cc:
Minister of Justice Nekibe Kelmendi
Minister of the Internal Affairs, Zenun Pajaziti
Chief Public Prosecutor of Kosovo, Hilmi Zhitija
Joachim Rucker, UNMIK SRSG
Robert Dean, Acting Head of UNMIK Department of Justice
Pieter Feith, EU Special Representative
Yves de Kermabon, Head of the ESDP Mission
Alberto Perduca, Head of the ESDP Justice Pillar

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