"Ethnic Albanian men fleeing the fighting in Macedonia face severe ill-treatment by the police," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "We have documented serious beatings and torture of ethnic Albanians at the Kumanovo and Skopje police stations in the last week. The victims we interviewed have the bruises and injuries to back up their claims of abuse."
On May 22, Macedonian forces launched an offensive against ethnic Albanian fighters of the NLA who had seized control of villages located in the vicinity of the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo. An estimated fifteen thousand civilians remain in the NLA-controlled territory, sparking concerns of significant civilian casualties if the fighting continues. Since the beginning of the renewed offensive, Macedonian forces have separated out men from the civilians fleeing the fighting and have severely beaten some of them.
Human Rights Watch researchers have documented cases of severe beating at the Kumanovo police station, located in the region where the latest fighting is taking place, as well as at the Skopje police station, located in the capital city of Macedonia. Some of the tactics involved hundreds of blows to the soles of the victims' feet-a torture technique known as falanga which causes severe pain and swelling and can lead to kidney failure-as well as extended beatings on the hands, buttocks, arms, and heads of the victims. The men interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that they had heard the screams of many other beating victims at the police stations, suggesting that the scope of such abuse may be widespread and condoned at the police stations.
Human Rights Watch said that the ill-treatment violates international human rights law, and in the most severe cases amounts to torture.
Many of the ethnic Albanians are reluctant to talk to international observers because they fear further retaliation from the Macedonian police, and have in some cases been warned by their abusers not to discuss their maltreatment. For this reason, identifying details are withheld from the testimonies summarized below. Some of the men were forced to sign confessions under torture and to implicate others in NLA-related activities. Large numbers of men continue to be separated out from convoys of fleeing civilians and taken to police stations.
On Tuesday, May 29, Human Rights Watch researchers observed a group of approximately thirty-five ethnic Albanian men from the village of Matejce who were separated from their female relatives and taken into the police station at Kumanovo.
"Jevit Hasani," (not his real name), a seventeen-year-old villager from Vaksince, an NLA-controlled village recaptured by government forces over the weekend, was arrested and taken to the Skopje police station after fleeing fighting in the village. He described the treatment he experienced in the police station:
They took us in a corridor. Suddenly I was hit on the head with a wooden stick, and then ten or so people began beating me until I fainted. When I came to, I was in a room. They were swearing, insulting my mother and sister, calling me an NLA fighter, a terrorist nationalist. … I was lying on the ground on my side, facing the wall when I woke up, and my shoes were off. They started beating me on the feet and the buttocks. At the beginning they would just beat me. They would count ten hits as one, and went all until fifty or sixty [i.e. five hundred to six hundred hits]. This was before they asked me questions.
[After being questioned and beaten more], they wrote a confession. Then they made me read the confession in front of a camera in another room. I had to confess I was a spy, and they made me read a list of names of people in the NLA which they had prepared, and say that the NLA had refused to let the civilians go out and abused us.
"Jevit Hasani" was released after forty-eight hours in custody. He showed Human Rights Watch researchers the deep bruises and hematoma on his buttocks caused by the severe beatings, and explained he had continued to suffer the after effects of beatings to his private parts. According to "Jevit Hasani" many other people were undergoing beatings while he was being detained at the police station: "I heard other people screaming while I was being interrogated, in other rooms. They were screaming in pain, there were a lot of them." A second witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch offered an essentially similar account of his beating at the Skopje police station, and also had deep bruises and hematoma on his buttocks and swollen hands, but did not want his ordeal publicized out of fear of police retaliation.
"Ymer Aqifi," (not his real name) a fifty-one-year-old father of six from Slupcane, was beaten at the Kumanovo police station on Sunday, May 27. He described the beatings he and eight other men he was detained with sustained:
We were taken into a corridor. Four [police investigators] made me lie down flat on my stomach. They beat me with an iron bar on the wrists, a wooden stick on my head, a [police] baton on my buttocks, and kicked with their feet however much they wanted. They were swearing, insulting my mother and sisters, all kinds of curses. They were asking who is NLA, where the Imam [religious leader] of the village was, where the civilian defenses were, where the headquarters were. But no one wrote down anything, they didn't wait for answers.
"Ymer Aqifi" showed Human Rights Watch researchers the deep bruises and hematoma on his buttocks, deep bruises on his arms, bruises on his forehead and the sides of his head, and his swollen hands.
That lasted for about an hour… I lost consciousness. Then they poured water on me. Two policemen came when I regained consciousness and they took me and the others to another corridor. … Down there, all night long, there were screaming people beneath us. You could hear how they beat them.
Twenty-five-year-old "Adem Yimeri" (not his real name), a farmer from Vaksince, was also beaten at Kumanovo police station. He described the beating to Human Rights Watch:
They took us to offices and there were three [police investigators]. They took me to an office by myself. … He said to write down who is in the NLA. They asked me about my relatives in Kosovo. … A person entered with a wooden stick covered with tape and he hit me on the back. Then they hit me on the sides of the head [above the hairline] so the bruises wouldn't show. They hit me twice on the hands with the bat. Then they said, "If it doesn't hurt like that, put them on the table and we will make sure you never pick up a rifle again." Then they hit me ten more times on the hands.
"Ethnic Albanian men remaining in the villages under NLA control fear ill-treatment and torture at the hands of Macedonian forces," commented Cartner. "There is little doubt that this fear is one of the reasons why so many ethnic Albanian men are refusing to leave their homes in the conflict zone."
Then they made me bend over a chair. One of them would hit me in the kidneys, and another hit me on the head. They said they would destroy my kidneys so I could never work again. From 12 to 4 p.m., they beat me like that.
Police forces have also abused ethnic Albanian civilians this past week during raids against suspected NLA sympathizers in Tetovo, the scene of earlier fighting between the NLA and government forces. Human Rights Watch researchers documented the cases of ten ethnic Albanian men who were beaten during police raids in the villages of Dzepciste and Poroj on May 25. During the raid on the Dzepciste home of Naser Junizi, a schoolteacher and village leader accused by the Macedonian government of assisting the NLA, police commandos beat Naser Junizi, two of his brothers, his sixty-eight-year-old father, and his eighteen-year-old son. Police also entered the Poroj compound of the Saiti family, kicking and breaking three ribs of thirty-six-year-old Rami Saiti and attacking his seventy-three-year-old father and seventeen-year-old cousin before apparently realizing they had entered the wrong home and rapidly leaving.
Human Rights Watch noted that police abuse of ethnic Albanians, as well as of Macedonian Slavs who run afoul of the police, is endemic in Macedonia, as documented in two earlier Human Rights Watch reports issued in 1996 and 1998. The NLA has claimed that one of the main reasons for its armed rebellion is the failure of the Macedonian government to address police abuse as well as other forms of discrimination against ethnic Albanians.
Although the Macedonian police appear responsible for the majority of beating cases, Macedonian military forces have also been implicated in beatings. Macedonian military troops appear responsible for the beating of a family of seven in the village of Runica, in which many houses were reportedly burned down by Macedonian troops on May 21, 2001. Human Rights Watch called for an immediate end to torture and other ill-treatment at police stations and urged the international community closely to monitor the treatment of ethnic Albanians by the Macedonian forces.
"The international community must do its part to bring an end to police abuse of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia," said Cartner. "International support for the Macedonian government should not mean remaining silent in the face of such severe ill-treatment."