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Human Rights Developments

The government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), led by President Slobodan Milosevic, continued its blatant disregard for human rights in 1998. Police and army actions in Kosovo involved grave breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law. Milosevic also took steps against the independent Serbian-language media and the autonomy of Serbia’s universities, and failed to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

By far the most serious violations occurred in the southwestern province of Kosovo, inhabited predominantly by ethnic Albanians who seek independence. After years of peaceful resistance to Yugoslav government repression, some ethnic Albanians formed an armed resistance against the state, known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), or Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves (UCK) in Albanian. By early 1998, the KLA had taken credit for a series of attacks on policemen and ethnic Albanians it considered collaborators with the government.

The first government atrocities took place in late February and early March when special police forces attacked three villages in the Drenica region, known for its KLA presence, with artillery, helicopters, and armored vehicles. At least eighty-eight peoplewere killed, twenty-four of them women and children. Although it is unclear to what extent the KLA was offering resistance, the evidence strongly suggests that at least seventeen people were executed after they had been detained or surrendered.

The police attack in Drenica was a watershed in the Kosovo conflict; thousands of outraged Albanians who had been committed to the nonviolent politics of their political leader Ibrahim Rugova decided to join the KLA. In the ensuing months, the KLA took control of an estimated 40 percent of Kosovo’s territory.

The government began a large-scale offensive against the KLA in mid-May, a few days after Milosevic agreed to U.S. demands that he meet with Rugova. The special police together with the Yugoslav Army attacked a string of towns and villages along the border with Albania in the west, with the specific intent of depopulating the region. Until then, the KLA had been receiving arms and fresh recruits from across the border.

Many villages from Pec in the north to Dakovica in the south were shelled while civilians were still present. Noncombatants who fled the attacks were sometimes fired on by snipers, and a still undetermined number of people were taken into detention. In three cases, helicopters marked with the Red Cross emblem reportedly fired on civilians. Landmines were placed in strategic points along the border, as well as along the southern border with Macedonia. Most villages in the region were systematically destroyed, and farmers’ livestock was shot, to ensure that no one could return in the short-run. Fifteen thousand people fled to Albania, and an estimated 30,000 went north to Montenegro.

The KLA’s first major offensive began on July 19 when it attempted to capture the town of Orahovac. The offensive failed and the police recaptured the town two days later. In the fighting at least forty-two people were killed. Witnesses reported summary executions and the use of human shields by the police. Foreign journalists received reports of mass graves, although these reports were not confirmed.

The government forces intensified their offensive throughout July and August, despite promises from Milosevic that it had stopped. By mid-August, the government had retaken much of the territory that had been held by the KLA, including their stronghold of Malisevo. Unable to protect the civilian population, the KLA retreated into Drenica and some pockets in the West.

Some of the worst atrocitiesto date occurred in late September, as the government’s offensive was coming to an end. On September 26, eighteen members of an extended family, mostly women, children, and elderly, were killed near the village of Donje Obrinje by men believed to be with the Serbian special police. Many of the victims had been shot in the head and showed signs of bodily mutilation. On the same day, thirteen ethnic Albanian men were executed in the nearby village of Golubovac by government forces. One man survived and was subsequently taken out of the country by the international agencies in Kosovo.

The government offensive was an apparent attempt to crush civilian support for the rebels. Government forces attacked civilians, systematically destroyed towns, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes. One attack in August near Senik killed seventeen civilians who were hiding in the woods. The police were seen looting homes, destroying already abandoned villages, burning crops, and killing farm animals.

The majority of those killed and injured were civilians. At least 300,000 people were displaced, many of them women and children now living without shelter in the mountains and woods. In October, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified an estimated 35,000 of the displaced as particularly at risk of exposure to the elements. Most were too afraid to return to their homes due to the continued police presence.

At least one hundred ethnic Albanians “disappeared” in Kosovo between February and September 1998, about half of whom were last seen in the custody of the police. The precise number was impossible to determine since the Yugoslav authorities did not make public the number of people they had in detention. Some of the “disappeared” may have been in prison, others were possibly dead. Others unaccounted for in the conflict may have gone into hiding, fled Kosovo, or joined the KLA.

As of October 4, 1,242 ethnic Albanians had been charged with “terrorist acts,” according to the government, although only 684 of these people were in custody. Detained individuals included human rights activists, humanitarian aid workers, political party members, doctors, and lawyers, many of whom were physically abused. The use of torture against detainees was widespread, and five people were known to have died from abuse in prison during the year.

The government restricted the ability of humanitarian aid agencies to treat the internally displaced. On various occasions, the police blocked access to needy populations, confiscated supplies, and harassed and even attacked humanitarian aid workers. Three humanitarian aid workers were killed by mortar fire while trying to deliver food near Kijevo on August 24. The government justified the restricted access by claiming that some humanitarian organizations had distributed supplies, including arms, to the KLA.

The KLA also committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including the taking of hostages and extrajudicialexecutions. At least one hundred ethnic Serbs, and a number of ethnic Albanians and Roma, were missing in circumstances in which KLA involvement was suspected: at least thirty-nine of them were last seen in KLA custody. In some villages the KLA tried to drive ethnic Serbs from their homes. In some cases, elderly Serbs stayed behind, either too old to flee or unwilling to abandon their homes. Some of these people were missing and feared dead. Four Serbian journalists were known to have been detained by the KLA.

On September 9, the police reported the discovery of bodies they claimed had been killed by the KLA in Lake Radonjic near Glodjane. By September 16, they had gathered thirty-four bodies, eleven of whom were identified, including some ethnic Albanians. At the end of August, the police claimed to have discovered the human remains of twenty-two people and a kiln used by the KLA to cremate the bodies in the village of Klecka. The manner in which the allegations were made, however, raised serious questions and underlined the importance of an investigation by an impartial forensics team to investigate Klecka, as well as the other areas where summary executions were reported.

On September 11, the Montenegrin government decided to close the internal boundary between Montenegro and Kosovo to all persons seeking refuge from the armed conflict. Two days later, a group of 3,200 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, the majority of them women, children, and the elderly, were expelled to Albania by Montenegrin authorities.

The Yugoslav government restricted the work of domestic and foreign journalists who sought to report the atrocities in Kosovo. Some ethnic Albanian journalists were threatened, detained, or beaten by the police. Independent radio and television stations in the Albanian language continued to be denied licenses and, in one case, a station was closed down. The international media covering Kosovo also faced a number of restrictions, starting with the denial of visas to critical journalists whom the state considered “anti-Serb.” One journalist was declared persona non grata. A number of foreign journalists were beaten or fired upon by the police. Other minority groups in FRY also complained of discrimination, especially the Muslims in Sandzak and Hungarians in Vojvodina. Members of the country’s large Roma population, the poorest ethnic group in FRY, were occasionally subjected to violence by individuals, usually “skinheads,” as well as by the police. Roma in Kosovo were harassed and occasionally attacked by both ethnic Albanians and the police.

The country’s ethnic minorities were hardly the only victims of human rights abuses in 1998. Throughout the year, the Yugoslav government continued to take repressive measures against all citizens who challenged or criticized its authority, regardless of ethnicity. Police abuse against common criminals, as well as those publicly demonstrating against the government, remained a common occurrence. The court system was closely controlled by the state, providing little opportunity for a fair hearing or a remedy for abuses committed by the state.

On May 26, the Serbian parliament passed a new law, the University Act, which gave government authorities exclusive power to appoint rectors, faculty deans, and governing boards at all public universities. The new law also required that all faculty members sign new employment contracts, regardless of the terms and conditions of their existing contracts. After the adoption of the new law, rectors, deans, and members of governing boards at universities across Serbia were replaced with government appointees, many of them prominent members of the ruling political parties in Serbia. Protests against the new law were violently dispersed; and professors involved with opposition political parties or publicly opposed to the policies of President Milosevic were verbally attacked by the government.

Government attacks on the Serbian-language press picked up throughout 1998, especially towards the end of the year. The government maintained direct control of the state radio and television, which provided news for the majority of the population. State programs continued to glorify the government’s accomplishments, conceal its failures and, most importantly, manipulate the fears of the population. As was the case during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, the state-run radio and television purposefully spread disinformation about Kosovo and promoted images of “the enemy” intended to inflame the conflict.

Independent media faced serious restrictions, including the confiscation of radio equipment and arbitrary bans. On October 8, in response to the threat of NATO intervention, the Serbian government passed a Decree on Special Measures that allowed for the direct censorship of local and foreign media. The decree banned the broadcast of foreign news programs like the BBC, RFE, and VOA, and ordered local media not to disseminate material that was “against the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of the country.” On the basis of the decree, the police closed down two newspapers, Danas and Dnevni Telegraf, and confiscated their computers on October 13. The next day, the independent daily Naša Borba was also closed. Two radio stations, Radio Index and Radio Senta, were also shut down.

On October 20, the Serbian parliament adopted a new Law on Public Information that incorporated many of the restrictions from the special decree, notably a ban on foreign radio and television broadcasts that were “of a political-propaganda nature.” The law imposed exorbitantly high fines on those who breach the law. On October 23, the owner of Dnevni Telegraf and Evropljanin magazine, Slavko Curuvija, was charged with publicizing information “jeopardizing the territorial integrity and independence of the Republic of Serbia and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” because of an open letter to Milosevic published by his magazine that strongly criticized the government. He and the magazines’s editor and publisher were found guilty and fined $230,000.

The least obvious but highly effective restriction on the media was the deliberate lack of a coherent legal framework for the establishment of private radio and television stations, which the government used to justify the denial of broadcast licenses. Without a license, stations could be summarily closed down, as happened to at least four stations in 1998.

Throughout 1998, the federal and Serbian authorities failed to cooperate fully with the ICTY. A number of prominent indictees remained on FRY territory during the year, and the government refused visas to some ICTY investigators who wished to conduct investigations in Kosovo, as well as U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer.





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