Official Dismissals Premature
Additional information has emerged that bolsters allegations of abductions and cross-border transfers from Kosovo to Albania after the 1998-1999 Kosovo war, Human Rights Watch said today. The Kosovar and Albanian governments should open independent and transparent investigations to help resolve the fate of approximately 400 Serbs who went missing after the war.
"Serious and credible allegations have emerged about horrible abuses in Kosovo and Albania after the war," said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, who investigated human rights violations in Kosovo and Albania for the organization from 1993-2000. "The Prishtina and Tirana governments can show their commitment to justice and the rule of law by conducting proper investigations."
The allegations became public recently in a new book by Carla Del Ponte, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Human Rights Watch has obtained independent information and documentation that provides credibility and corroboration of much of what Del Ponte writes about postwar abuses in Kosovo. Del Ponte’s Italian-language book is titled “The Hunt: War Criminals and Me.”
Human Rights Watch wrote letters to Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha on April 4 to request that they open investigations into the allegations, but by May 2 neither government had replied, Human Rights Watch said. Top officials in both places publicly rejected the claims as unsubstantiated and libelous.
According to Del Ponte, the ICTY received information from “credible journalists” in 2003 that individuals in Kosovo had abducted and transported between 100 and 300 persons from Kosovo into northern Albania after June 12, 1999, when NATO forces entered Kosovo. The information was consistent with and corroborated what the tribunal had developed in house.
Human Rights Watch viewed the information the ICTY obtained from the journalists and considers it well researched and credible: seven ethnic Albanians who served in the Kosovo Liberation Army, interviewed separately, gave details about participating in or witnessing the transfer of abducted Serbs and others prisoners from Kosovo into Albania after the war.
According to the journalists’ information, the abducted individuals were held in warehouses and other buildings, including facilities in Kukes and Tropoje. In comparison to other captives, some of the sources said, some of the younger, healthier detainees were fed, examined by doctors, and never beaten. These abducted individuals – an unknown number – were allegedly transferred to a yellow house in or around the Albanian town of Burrel, where doctors extracted the captives’ internal organs. These organs were then transported out of Albania via the airport near the capital Tirana. Most of the alleged victims were Serbs who went missing after the arrival of UN and NATO forces in Kosovo. But other captives were women from Kosovo, Albania, Russia, and other Slavic countries.
“The information on organ trafficking is suggestive but far from complete,” said Abrahams. “But the fact remains that hundreds of people, most of them Serbs, are reported to have gone missing after the war. The Kosovo and Albanian governments should try to determine the fates of these people by launching serious investigations with adequate witness protection.”
According to the information obtained by the ICTY, the bodies of some of the abducted individuals were buried near the yellow house and a nearby graveyard about 20 kilometers south of Burrel. Investigators from the tribunal and the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), accompanied by an Albanian prosecutor, inspected the house in February 2004. The house had been painted white but, in a photo of the investigation site viewed by Human Rights Watch, a yellow strip was visible at the house’s base.
According to Del Ponte, near the house investigators found medical equipment used in surgery – syringes, gauze, drip bags, and medicine vials for muscle relaxant often used in surgery. Using a chemical spray, the team found evidence of significant blood stains on the walls and floor of one room, except for a clear six-foot by two-foot rectangle on the floor.
Human Rights Watch spoke separately with two people who were present during the visit of the ICTY and UNMIK investigators to the house near Burrel. Both people corroborated the story as told in Del Ponte’s book.
Human Rights Watch also obtained a copy of UNMIK’s official report from the February 4-5, 2004 investigation, titled “Forensic Examination and Assessment in Albania,” which largely corroborates Del Ponte’s claims. The chemical spray called Luminol, the report says, revealed traces of blood in two rooms, including one spot at a right angle on the floor, which “would indicate that there may have been by [sic] a rectangular item covering this area.” In a stream bed next to the house, investigators found an empty intravenous bag, syringes, and empty bottles of medicine, which they collected as evidence.
A tribunal spokeswoman confirmed on April 16 that ICTY and UNMIK investigators had looked into the allegations and visited the house near Burrel, but that they “could not substantiate the allegations and had no further basis on which to proceed in relation to [the tribunal’s] jurisdiction.” In response to a question, the spokeswoman said the investigators found “no reliable evidence” to substantiate the allegations.
“Collecting reliable evidence to launch a criminal prosecution and collecting evidence that adds weight to assertions are two different things, and the evidence found near Burrel clearly adds weight to the assertions,” Abrahams said. “The tribunal mandate also only covers crimes committed during the armed conflict, which ended on June 12, 1999. The alleged kidnappings and other crimes took place after that date, so that was a further obstacle to pursuing an investigation.”
Last week, Albanian Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha dismissed Del Ponte’s allegations as “immoral” and “libelous.”
“Minister Basha should take the allegations more seriously because he knows from his own experience that there is credible evidence of cross-border transfers,” Abrahams said. “He worked for the tribunal and the Justice Department at UNMIK after the war, and personally investigated reports of detention facilities in northern Albania.”
Human Rights Watch said it had not conducted its own investigation into the reports, beyond viewing the material presented to the ICTY, obtaining the UNMIK investigation report and speaking with two people who were present during the investigation in Burrel. But it noted the large number of persons missing from the Kosovo war – Albanians, Serbs, and other ethnic groups.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1,613 persons from Kosovo are still reported missing and 350 are reported dead, but their bodies have not yet been found and identified. The organization gives no ethnic breakdown. According to the Association of Families of Kidnapped and Missing Persons in Kosovo and Metohija, 533 Serbs from Kosovo remain missing, 430 of whom disappeared after June 10, 1999.
Human Rights Watch also urged the Serbian government to help solve the fate of the roughly 1,500 missing ethnic Albanians from the war. Human Rights Watch has documented the removal of ethnic Albanian bodies from 10 places in Kosovo in 1999. Hundreds were reburied in mass graves inside Serbia, including on a base used by the special police.
“The Serbian government is rightfully complaining about the reported abductions and transfers of Serbs to Albania,” Abrahams said. “But it has also failed to cooperate enough to shed light on the even larger number of Kosovo Albanians missing from the war.”