This memorandum addresses the issue of Kosovo Albanian political prisoners in Serbia. Newly-elected Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has pledged to respect human rights and re-establish the rule of law in Yugoslavia. Correcting miscarriages of justice such as those perpetrated against Kosovo Albanian political prisoners is an essential part of upholding this pledge.
The Humanitarian Law Center and Human Rights Watch also recognize the urgent need to address the problem of missing persons, Serbs and Albanians alike, in the wake of the Kosovo conflict. The new authorities in Belgrade and the U.N. administration in Kosovo should initiate a joint effort to resolve this legacy of the war.
Political Prisoners: The Facts
Upon the signing of the June 10, 1999, Military-Technical Agreement between Yugoslavia and NATO that ended the Kosovo war, an estimated 2,100 Kosovo Albanians were transferred from prisons in Kosovo to Serbia proper. The majority were civilians unlawfully arrested by Serbian security forces during the war. As of October 13, 2000, 1,250 Kosovo Albanian prisoners have been released.
Of the 850 Kosovo Albanian prisoners who remain in Serbian prisons, an estimated 650 are political prisoners, charged with either hostile activity against the state or terrorism. The remaining 200 are serving prison sentences for non-political crimes.
Fourteen of the political prisoners, including two minors, have been in detention for seventeen months without any formal charges. The rest are either on trial, awaiting appeal, or have already had their appeals reviewed by the Serbian Supreme Court or the Military Supreme Court.
The political prisoners were routinely denied the right to a fair trial. Courts sentenced Kosovo Albanians on the basis of forced confessions, and judges frequently refused the introduction of evidence that could have disproved the charges. The prosecution's primary evidence against those convicted was the highly unreliable and discredited "paraffin test," which checks for gunpowder on defendants' hands.
According to the Yugoslav constitution and federal law, the Yugoslav president is empowered to pardon those indicted or convicted of federal crimes, such as hostile activity against the state and terrorism.
To the Serbian and Yugoslav authorities:
The Serbian Supreme Court should urgently review those political cases of Kosovo Albanians pending appeal and acquit all those defendants for whom evidence is lacking.
President Kostunica should immediately review all political cases of Kosovo Albanians in Serbia that have been ruled on by the Serbian Supreme Court or the Military Supreme Court. Those prisoners for whom there is no evidence should be released without delay. The Humanitarian Law Center and Human Rights Watch, who either represented the defendants or monitored their trials, stand ready to provide information that would assist in this review.
President Kostunica should facilitate the immediate release of the fourteen detainees held for seventeen months without charges.
The release of Kosovo Albanian political prisoners should not be linked to the fate of missing persons or those who have been forced to flee Kosovo.
To the International Community:
The European Union and United Nations, as well as individual governments, should urge President Kostunica and the future Serbian and Yugoslav governments to demonstrate their commitment to the rule of law by reviewing these cases and releasing all those arrested or convicted on unsubstanted political charges.