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On paper Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy with a separation of powers and human rights guarantees. In reality, difficiencies remained in 1998, especially regarding abuse by the police, independence of the judiciary, and the treatment of ethnic minorities.

One of the main human rights problems was the misconduct of the police and other law enforcement officials. With disturbing frequency, individuals were arrested without a warrant and beaten until they confessed to a crime. Procedural violations were commonplace. Individuals were often held longer than the twenty-four hours allowed by law, not informed of the reason for their arrest, and denied immediate access to a lawyer. The practice of “informative talks”—summoning a person to the police for questioning—continued even though it was forbidden by Macedonian law.

On many occasions, the courts collaborated with the police by backdating arrest warrants or refusing to accept a defendant’s complaint of police abuse. In some cases, the courts demanded money from defendants, apparently in exchange for their release. Very rarely did the courts hold abusive police officers accountable. As a result, many citizens were reluctant to complain of police mistreatment, believing that, at best, they would gain nothing and, at worst, they would invite retribution. The Ministry of the Interior’s legal affairs bureau failed to take forceful steps to punish policemen, even when they were repeat offenders.

Macedonia’s ethnic communities—Albanians, Turks, Roma, and Bulgarians, among others—were especially susceptible to abuse. But violations cut across ethnic lines: all ethnic groups in Macedonia suffered violence at the hands of the police, as well asprocedural violations, almost always with no recourse through the courts. The common characteristic among victims, rather than ethnicity, was usually the person’s oppositional political activity or low social-economic status.

The most serious case of police violence took place in July 1997, when special forces of the Macedonian police, some of them trained in the United States, used excessive force against violent ethnic Albanian demonstrators in the western town of Gostivar, leaving more than 200 people injured, including nine policemen, and three people dead. A parliamentary investigatory commission was formed in September 1997 but did not produce its report until March 11, 1998. It recognized that some police abuse had taken place, but provided no details and failed to identify any of the abusive policemen or their superiors. The government was obliged to respond to the recommendations of the report, which included undertaking “legal measures to establish responsibility,” by April 31, 1998. By October 1998, the government had not yet responded.

A report by the European Roma Rights Center in July documented serious police abuse against Macedonia’s Roma population. The report detailed cases of racially motivated violence against Roma by civilians and the police, as well as the judicial system’s failure to remedy these abuses. The report also criticized Macedonia’s citizenship law, by which citizenship has been denied to Roma who lived in Macedonia for most of their lives.

Ethnic Albanians continued to complain of state discrimination, particularly in state employment and education. Albanians remained underrepresented in government, especially in the police force, even in areas where they made up the majority of the local population. The highly disputed private Albanian-language university in Tetovo, which opened in 1994 against the wishes of the government, continued to operate in 1998 without government interference. But the government refused to recognize the diplomas of the first graduating class in 1998.

Four ethnic Albanian politicians, who had been arrested in 1997 for raising the Albanian state flag in front of two town halls, had their sentences reduced but not overturned in 1998, despite the fact that their original trials had been marred by due process violations. Rufi Osmani, mayor of Gostivar, had his sentence reduced from thirteen years and eight months to seven years for inciting national, racial, and religious hatred, organizing armed resistance, and disobeying an order of the constitutional court, after he raised the Albanian state flag in front of the Gostivar town hall. The mayor of Tetovo and two city council members were sentenced to lesser prison terms. Human rights groups that observed the 1997 trials raised concern about a number of due process violations, including poor access to the case files, restricted lawyer consultations, and the court’s refusal to accept witnesses on behalf of the defense.

The Macedonian media were generally free, although some government restrictions remained in 1998. The state radio and television were still biased in favor of the government, and there were allegations of political decision-making in the allocation of private broadcast licenses. The state also maintained a disproportionate control over the printing and distribution of print media.

The fighting in Kosovo between Yugoslav government forces and the Albanian insurgency, known as the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), exacerbated already existing ethnic tension in Macedonia. An estimated 8,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo entered Macedonia and were allowed to stay as “visitors.” Ethnic Albanians in Macedonia held a number of large and emotional demonstrations in support of Kosovar Albanians, although no incidents of violence were reported. Throughout the year, a number of bombs exploded in cities throughout Macedonia. Many suspected they were actions of the KLA, but this remained unproven.

Parliamentary elections were held on October 18, the third general election since the end of one-party communist rule. The nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party won the election and, in a right-wing coalition with the Democratic Alternative (DA) party, took control of the government from the Social Democrats (SDSM). A new electoral law adopted in June created a new, mixed electoral system that combined the majority and proportional systems. For the first time, the voter registry was made available to political parties for review, and voter identification cards were issued. Ethnic Albanian political parties, however, complained about the composition of the electoral commissions, district gerrymandering, and inadequate state funding for voter education. The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party complained of inaccurate voter registries. The two previous general elections in Macedonia were marred by irregularities, although they were both considered “acceptable” by international observers.





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