At least 1,000 ethnic Albanians are currently believed to be in Serbian prisons and police stations.
"The Serbian government's military offensive may have slowed down for the winter," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "But the legal offensive is in full swing, despite the government's promise to grant an amnesty."
On October 14, the Serbian government announced a general amnesty for "crimes related to the conflict in Kosovo." The Serbian parliament declared that no one would be prosecuted for crimes related to the conflict, "except for crimes against humanity and international law." Despite these promises, large numbers of ethnic Albanians remain in custody and Human Rights Watch has no information that anyone arrested during the conflict has been released as a result of this amnesty.
The most recent Serbian government figures, from October 3, state that 684 ethnic Albanians have been arrested for committing or supporting "terrorism." But local and international human rights groups believe the actual number is closer to 1,500. Detained individuals include human rights activists, doctors, humanitarian aid workers, and lawyers, many of whom were physically abused.
Five individuals are known to have died in detention since July 1998 from the violence inflicted on them by the police or prison guards. Hundreds of others have been injured from beatings with rubber batons and torture, including the use of electric shock.
"The accusation of ‘terrorism' has cast a wide legal net around many ethnic Albanians, for whom there is no evidence of contact with the KLA, or of criminal conduct," said Ms. Cartner. "Simply being an Albanian in Kosovo is enough to merit an arrest and torture."
The Serbian government has obstructed efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit detainees, especially those in pre-trial detention, despite Security Council resolutions mandating full access. Similarly, lawyers and family members have difficulty visiting their clients and relatives in prisons and police stations.
Trials began in September and are continuing through the winter. In addition to the use of torture to extract confessions, defendants are often denied access to a lawyer, not allowed to view court documentation, or refused permission to present witnesses on their own behalf.
Human Rights Watch also documents illegal detentions committed by the KLA. Estimates of ethnic Serbs and Albanians abducted by the KLA range from 100 to 300, but it is not known whether these people have fled the region, are in hiding, have been killed, or are currently in KLA custody. The ICRC has been denied access to KLA detainees, which raises additional concerns for their safety.
The KLA has released some people from detention, such as thirty-five ethnic Serbs captured during fighting in Orahovac in July. On November 27, two ethnic Serbian journalists with the state-run Tanjug press agency were released after spending more than one month in custody. Their trial by a KLA military court did not meet international standards of due process, and they were denied visits by the ICRC and family members.
In addition to its recommendations to the Yugoslav government and the KLA, Human Rights Watch urges the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission actively to monitor the treatment of those in detention through regular visits to prisons and police stations. The OSCE should try to interview detainees, publicize abuses, raise objections with the authorities, and recommend corrective action.
"Human rights abuses are central to the Kosovo conflict," said Ms. Cartner. "The OSCE should be monitoring and publicly reporting on the ongoing abuses, especially the mistreatment of those in detention, both Albanians and Serbs."