Human Rights Watch, the Greek Helsinki Monitor, and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Republic of Macedonia express their common concern regarding the recent decision of the Skopje Court of Appeals in the cases of Rufi Osmani, Mayor of Gostivar, and Refik Dauti, president of the Gostivar city council.
Human Rights Watch, the Greek Helsinki Monitor and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Republic of Macedonia understand that the two defendants plan to challenge the decision in Macedonia's supreme court. We call on that body to consider the numerous procedural violations in their first trial, portions of which were monitored by members of the Greek Helsinki Monitor and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Republic of Macedonia. If Mr. Osmani or Mr. Dauti are guilty of the charges brought against them, the court should prove it in a fair and open atmosphere, in which the defendants are guaranteed the constitutional right to a proper defense.
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Republic of Macedonia
Greeek Helsinki Monitor
Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
On January 27, 1997, the city councils in Tetovo and Gostivar, two predominantly ethnic Albanian towns in western Macedonia, voted to raise the Albanian and Turkish state flags next to the Macedonian state flag outside of the cities' town halls. The Macedonian Ministry of Interior informed the Tetovo and Gostivar governments that their decision was illegal, but the city councils refused to take the flags down.
On May 21, the Macedonian constitutional court ruled that the city councils in Tetovo and Gostivar did not have the right to fly the Albanian or Turkish flags in front of their town halls. Both local governments refused to recognize the court's decision. Then, on July 8, around 11 p.m., parliament approved a new Law on the Use of Foreign Flags, which allowed state flags other than the Macedonian to be flown at any time on private property and in front of town halls on state holidays. Approximately four hours later, special police forces moved into Tetovo and Gostivar without warning, illegally detained some key members of the ruling ethnic Albanian party, including Mayor Osmani, took down the Albanian and Turkish flags, and ransacked parts of the Tetovo and Gostivar town halls. In violent clashes between the police and demonstrators later that day, more than 200 people, including seven policemen, were injured and three people died. The police used excessive force against individuals who were not offering any resistance, or who had ceased to resist, and illegally detained many people who had not participated in the demonstration.
That same day, four ethnic Albanian officials from Gostivar and Tetovo were arrested. Alajdin Demiri, Mayor of Tetovo, Vehbi Bexheti, president of the Tetovo city council, and Refik Dauti, President of the Gostivar city council, were charged with disobeying a decision of the constitutional court, according to Article 377 of the penal code. Mayor Osmani, faced the same charge, plus organizing an armed resistance (Article 387 of the penal code) and inciting national, racial and religious hatred (Article 319 of the penal code).
Osmani, who was the main organizer of the movement to raise the Albanian and Turkish flags, was held in pre-trial detention for sixty-three days. The court rejected the defendant's request to be released from custody, ignoring the defense's argument that, since Osmani had a family and substantial property, he was not likely to abscond. Dauti was released after thirty days in detention, while Demiri and Bexheti, who went on trial separately, were not detained at all.
Originally scheduled to begin on September 1, the court granted Osmani and Dauti a nine-day postponement because they had not been provided all of the case material. The trial resumed on September 10, and was observed by the OSCE, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Republic of Macedonia, and the Greek Helsinki Monitor. The Gostivar court allowed numerous irregularities, denying the defendants their right to a fair trial. Most serious was the judge's repeated refusal to allow defense witnesses to testify. During the six-day trial, the prosecution was allowed to present six witnesses on its behalf, while the defense could not present any of its seven witnesses. Moreover, the judge limited consultations between the defendants and their lawyers. According to a report on the trial by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Republic of Macedonia, "the 'partnership' between the prosecution and the court against the defense left a bad impression of the impartiality of the court."
On September 16, after the court refused to postpone the trial for one day, Osmani's legal team, Savo Kocarev, Nexhat Mehmeti and Machmut Jusufi, resigned in protest, stating that "the court jeopardizes the defense's rights and does not allow us to prepare a proper defense." The court appointed a lawyer, but Osmani refused to have him to speak on his behalf.
Regarding the accusation of inciting ethnic and racial hatred, the prosecution's case was based on statements Osmani made during a demonstration held in Gostivar on May 26, 1997. Based on video material shot secretly by the police, Osmani shouted slogans such as: "We will give our lives, not our flag!" "We will return a slap with a slap!" and "Gostivar is an Albanian city!" Regarding the charge of organizing resistance, the prosecution presented a document called a "Crisis Plan," which police allegedly found in Osmani's office. The typed and unsigned document contained a written plan to defend the flags with armed groups in the event of police intervention. Osmani claimed that the document was not his, but the court refused the defense's request to have the document submitted for an expert analysis to help determine its authenticity.
On September 17, the Gostivar court, with judge Jelena Kemeri presiding, found Refik Dauti guilty of disobeying a decision of the constitution court and sentenced him to the maximum punishment of three years in prison. Osmani was found guilty on all three charges, and was sentenced to 13 years, eight months in prison.
Human rights groups and a number of political parties, including the ethnic Macedonian opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, condemned the verdict for its unusual harshness. Of particular concern was the eight-year sentence for violating Article 319 of the penal code, inciting ethnic and racial hatred. Osmani's conviction made apparent the arbitrary application of justice in Macedonia, since some highly xenophobic and anti-Albanian demonstrations held by ethnic Macedonians students in 1997 were never prosecuted.
Human Rights Watch, the Greek Helsinki Monitor, and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Republic of Macedonia are mainly concerned that Osmani and Dauti were denied their due process rights guaranteed under Macedonian and international law. Specifically, poor access to the case material, restricted lawyer consultations, and the court's refusal to accept witnesses on the behalf of the defense prohibited the defendants from obtaining a fair trial.
On October 14, 1997, the Tetovo court found Alajdin Demiri and Vehbi Bexheti, the two ethnic Albanian officials from Tetovo, guilty of disobeying a decision of the constitutional court, and sentenced them each to two and a half years in prison. On January 14, 1998, a Skopje appeals court overturned the guilty verdict and returned the case back to the district court for review. On October 19, the Appellate Court in Skopje reduced Osmani's sentence from 13 years, 8 months to seven years. Dauti's sentence was reduced from three years to two years.