Police abuse against ethnic Albanians remains a serious concern in Macedonia despite the recent signing of a political agreement aimed to end the six-month old conflict, Human Rights Watch said today.
On August 13, 2001 -- the same day the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian leaders signed a framework peace agreement -- police officers in Skopje beat to death an Albanian man suspected of being a rebel.
"Persistent police abuse in Macedonia is simply shocking," said Elizabeth Andersen, Executive Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Macedonia must urgently address the violence in its police stations. Ethnic Albanians are being severely abused, and in some cases beaten to death, without the slightest prospect of accountability."
Human Rights Watch also urged that international organizations operating in Macedonia dramatically increase their human rights monitoring presence in the country.
On Monday, August 13, 2001, police officers guarding Skopje's main hospital arrested four ethnic Albanians who had come to the hospital to pick up an elderly Albanian relative undergoing kidney dialysis treatment. The police searched their car and claimed to find a bullet in the trunk. The police then proceeded to beat the four men in the street.
The men were then taken onto the hospital grounds and beaten continuously for several hours with heavy metal cables, baseball bats, police truncheons, and gun butts, amidst jeering from the civilian crowd that had gathered. Following this, the four men were taken to the "Beko One" police station, where they were subjected to more beatings, had urine and burning cigarettes thrown at them, and were threatened with execution. Following interventions from their ethnic Macedonian lawyer and a police officer who knew the men, they were released the next morning. One of the men, twenty-nine year old Nazmi Aliu, father of a six-year-old and a two-year-old, died that day at the hospital from the injuries he received from the police beatings.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed two of the surviving men, who gave consistent and credible accounts of their ordeal, and inspected their severe bruises from the beatings. One of the men, who was a week later still unable to stand because of the injuries he received during the beatings, told Human Rights Watch:
[After claiming to find the bullet], they started beating us right there. One police officer hit me with a thick wire cable and slammed my head into the wall. My front teeth were in great pain. They were beating us for about one hour in the street, all of them, with cables, rubber truncheons, baseball bats, gun handles. There were lots of civilians there looking, they were swearing at us.
We couldn't walk, so they dragged us inside the main gate [of the hospital] to some stores near a fountain. While they were dragging us, they were beating us very badly. I lost my consciousness there from the beating, and they took water from the fountain to revive us. . . .
Then they dragged us out and put us in a police van and took us to the police station. They dragged us out of the van, and the commander said, "Who wishes to beat the UCK [rebels]?" They formed a column of police officers, some on our left and some on our right, and one of the officers would drag us through the column and they would beat us . . . .
[In the cell,] the commander came and opened the door and everyone came inside. They beat us very badly, I couldn't move to protect myself, we were just lying like dead bodies there. Then the commander said, "OK, it's enough now, we will do it again after five minutes." He locked the door. . . . One police officer grabbed a long metal stick and started beating us through the bars. We couldn't move, we just lay there and couldn't protect ourselves. They took a basket of water and urinated in it, and threw it on us. They kept pouring water on us, just to keep us conscious. They would swear at us, saying, "You UCK motherfuckers, we are going to kill you slowly."
Police abuse is an endemic problem in Macedonia, and was one of the main grievances raised by the ethnic Albanian rebel National Liberation Army (NLA; UCK in Albanian)) to justify its resort to arms. The framework peace agreement signed last week provides for the gradual integration of ethnic Albanians into the predominantly ethnic Macedonian police force.
"The peace agreement lays out a long-term plan for addressing the problem," Andersen stated. "What is also needed are immediate measures to curb abuse, including international human rights monitors regularly visiting police stations and insisting on accountability in cases like these."
Human Rights Watch has issued two reports on police abuse in Macedonia, in 1996 and in 1998. (See A Threat to Stability, June 1996; and Police Violence in Macedonia, April 1998) The rights group has documented widespread abuse at police stations since the beginning of the conflict. (See Human Rights Watch release, Macedonian Police Abuses Documented, May 31, 2001).
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the safety of at least twenty-seven ethnic Albanian men who were detained on Sunday, August 12, 2001 by the Macedonian police during an operation in the village of Ljuboten. In addition to the detentions, the Ljuboten operation resulted in the deaths of at least ten ethnic Albanian civilians. The Macedonian police have claimed that the operation targeted an NLA stronghold, but they have produced no proof to counteract mounting evidence that the victims of the police action were civilians, not fighters.
On Saturday, August 18, relatives found the body of one man missing from Ljuboten, thirty-five-year-old Atulah Qaini, at the morgue in Skopje. The body of Qaini, who had last been seen in police custody in the village, bore clear signs of severe beatings and had a cracked skull when inspected by Human Rights Watch researchers. Most of the other men have been located alive in police detention, but bear clear signs of severe beatings according to relatives. A mother interviewed by Human Rights Watch who had a thirteen- year-old son detained in the village said that his entire face was bruised and swollen when she went to visit him in prison.