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(Berlin) – Serbia should immediately release two Kosovo Albanians arbitrarily arrested on March 28, 2012 in “retaliation” for the arrest of four Serbs on March 27, Human Rights Watch said today. Kosovo should facilitate an urgent review by an EU Kosovo mission judge of the charges and house arrest of the four Serbs, Human Rights Watch said.

The four Kosovo Serbs, including the Mayor of the town of Vitina, were arrested by Kosovo police as they tried to cross back into Kosovo at the Belja Zemlja administrative border between Serbia and Kosovo and were subsequently charged with “incitement to hatred and intolerance among ethnic groups.” They were carrying materials for elections that Kosovo Serbs say will be held in Serb-controlled areas of Northern Kosovo on May 6. While the planned elections have been condemned by the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX) as contrary to international law, it is not clear how possessing election materials can constitute a criminal offense, Human Rights Watch said.

“The purported justification for the detention of the two Kosovo Albanians lacks any legal basis and is therefore arbitrary,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The case of the four Serbs requires review by a EULEX judge to determine whether the charges and house arrests were justified.”

On March 28, Serbian border police arrested two Kosovo Albanians at a border crossing near Gjilan, Kosovo. Serbia’s interior minister, Ivica Dacic, described the arrests of the two trade unionists, Hasan Abazi and Adem Urseli, as retaliation for the arrest of the four Serbs.

The two Albanians were charged with espionage and drug trafficking and transferred to Vranje in southern Serbia, where they remain in custody pending a decision on whether they should remain in detention. On March 29, the Kosovska Kamenica municipal court decided on a 30 day pre-trial house arrest for the four Serbs. The decision has been appealed.

Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement on December 26, 2011 guaranteeing free movement across the border. Under the deal, Kosovars with documents issues by the Republic of Kosovo are entitled to temporary Serbian identity documents and car registration, to allow them to travel in Serbia.

Tensions have risen over Serbia’s support for local elections in Serb-controlled areas of northern Kosovo, which EULEX has said contravenes the UN Security Council resolution placing Kosovo under international administration. The Kosovo government has declared that it will try to prevent the elections.

The incidents follow the arrest in Gijlan on February 25 of six alleged members of Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs in Kosovo for allegedly exerting undue pressure on citizens of the town of Partes not to recognize Kosovo institutions. The Serbian interior minister responded to the arrests by threatening to arrest employees of Kosovo institutions in retaliation. One man was released and the other five remain in detention after a Kosovo court on March 27 extended their detention by another 60 days.

Five Serbs were also arrested on March 28 in Vucitrn, in northern Kosovo, for alleged possession of election materials. Four have since been released. The fifth man, who took responsibility for possession of the materials, has been charged with incitement to hatred.

“Arbitrary and retaliatory arrests undermine the very core of the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia to guarantee free movement across their borders,” Gall said. “Albanians and Serbs alike will fear that if they cross the border they risk arrest.”  

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