It has been more than six months since fourteen Albanians, including three American citizens, were seized from their beds in Tuzi in the wee hours of the morning of September 9, 2006, by a masked and fully armed SWAT team participating in an operation code-named “Eagles’ Flight.” The next day, when parliamentary elections were held in Montenegro, the government released a statement to the press, stating that the men had been apprehended because they were a part of an organized, terrorist group bent on overthrowing the state. No evidence was provided, but photographs of a cache of weapons uncovered by the government—all of which appeared to be of World War II vintage—were splashed across the front pages of the Montenegrin media. At the time of their arrest, the three Americans (Kola Dedvukaj, Rrok Dedvukaj, and Sokol Ivanaj) were on vacation in Montenegro. Kola and Rrok, the two detainees that I know personally, are both retired Chrysler assembly line workers from suburban Detroit. Rrok retired because of spinal problems, and this was his first vacation to Montenegro in twenty-five years. The night before their arrest, they, along with most of the other fourteen, had attended a peaceful political rally in Tuzi in support of the ethnic Albanian politician who was subsequently elected to the Montenegrin parliament.
Until they appeared before the higher court in Podgorica, the fourteen did not know why they had been arrested and humiliated, beaten for hours at a time, forced to remain on their knees for prolonged periods, threatened with weapons and electricity, and starved for three days. As of this writing, Kola Dedvukaj’s health has deteriorated so badly that his life is at risk.
Amnesty International and Helsinki International intervened, challenging the Montenegrin authorities to investigate the torture of the fourteen men. At the urging of the Albanian American Civic League, Members of the U.S. Congress, specifically, Congressman Tom Lantos, now Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Committee’s Ranking Republican Member, senior Committee member Dana Rohrabacher, and Senator Joseph Biden, now Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appealed to the Montenegrin government to either produce proof of criminal activity and bring the fourteen Albanians to trial in timely fashion or release them immediately. To date their letters have gone unanswered.
Victims of Torture and Illegally Obtained “Evidence”
As confirmed in Amnesty International’s October 2006 report, entitled “Montenegro” Newest UN State Must Stop Torture and Take Action to Bring Police to Justice,” the torture of the fourteen Albanians—from the time that they were arrested on September 9 in Tuzi until they were transferred to the federal prison in Podgorica on September 12—was consistent with a pattern that had been documented in a May 2006 report on Serbia and Montenegro by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. Sokol Ivanaj said that his torture was so severe that he was compelled to confess falsely. On March 15, 2007, lawyers for the Albanian prisoners reported to Amnesty that an investigation into the torture of the fourteen men still had not been conducted—six months after criminal claims were filed on their behalf with the Higher Court in Podgorica. Also, no disciplinary measures have been taken against the police officers involved.
Equally important, when the Montenegrin government finally filed formal charges three months later, on December 7, 2006, they did so against the entire group for “planning crimes of terrorism and insurrection” and based on illegally obtained evidence that did not support the charges anyway. According to the lawyers for Kola and Rrok Dedvukaj, the thirty-page indictment contains, for example, only a few paragraphs mentioning their clients. These paragraphs were based on one diary confiscated from another detainee during a search without a warrant or witnesses, a statement obtained under police torture from another prisoner, and two café conversations overheard by informants in Shkodra and Tirana, Albania.
In addition, Rrok Dedvukaj emerges in the indictment as a man dedicated to peace and opposing violence, and Kola Dedvukaj is cited only as being present in Shkodra without any personal involvement in a discussion of the potential need to resort to armed struggle to defend Albanian rights in Montenegro. In short, these men are being treated as part of an organized group preparing terrorist attacks without a single description of their particular words or actions that would justify even suspicion against them. And, as the nine lawyers representing the Tuzi Fourteen stated in a public document on October 12, 2006, “there is no evidence and not even any indication that the majority of the men performed criminal acts of the kind they are suspected of.” This raises serious questions about the reasons for their detention and the prolongation of their confinement.
Denied the Right to an Immediate and Fair Trial
For three months, the fourteen remained in Spuz prison without being formally charged with a criminal offense. And yet they were routinely identified in the Montenegrin press as “terrorists,” violating their presumption of innocence. When the government finally indicted the men last December, they said that collectively they were “preparing to incite armed insurrection against the state” in order to “create a territorial region within Montenegro populated by Albanian people with a special status contrary to the constitutional order of Montenegro.” The Prelevic law firm, representing Kola and Rrok Dedvukaj, as well as some of the other prisoners, stated that, on the contrary, “There was no evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of the Americans, that the shocking torture and jailing of the fourteen was an act of ethnically motivated violence against Albanians, and that the mindset of the Montenegrin government needed to be changed.” Several ethnic Albanian political leaders told the press that the arrests amounted to a political provocation because most of the detained men supported Albanian politicians in Tuzi seeking the return of municipal status to Tuzi instead of the ruling party of then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.
On April 9, 2007, the fourteen men will have languished in jail for seven months. All appeals for their release on bail pending trial have been denied. Incredibly, in the case of the Americans bail has been denied because they are believed to be at risk of flight as U.S. citizens, even though the authorities have their passports. Still no trial date has been set. The High Court in Podgorica not only failed to schedule a trial date within two months after the indictment was filed, in breach of domestic law, but it announced that it would not schedule the trial until Austria made a final decision about whether to extradite Doda Lucaj, another ethnic Albanian named in this case who is currently detained in Vienna. If Austria follows its legal procedures, it should rule by the middle of April on Lucaj’s appeal to block his extradition. But even if it does not, the burden of proof rests on the Montenegrin government to justify continuing pre-trial detention of the Tuzi Fourteen.
Once the case goes to trial, the first step to ensuring that the proceedings are fair is to record them electronically and conduct them simultaneously in Albanian and Montenegrin—a subject that the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica took up with the Montenegrin government in February. Because the government thus far has failed so profoundly in its international obligations in this case, its capacity to conduct a fair trial remains increasingly in doubt.
The Politics Behind the Arrest and Prolonged Detention of the Tuzi Fourteen
In a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica on November 28, 2006, the Prelevic law firm stated that they are convinced that their defendants “are being deliberately abused by the Montenegrin authorities in order to ‘prove’ an international conspiracy and achieve political goals.” The conspiracy to which they are referring is a fiction manufactured by some forces within the Montenegrin government and the international community, which would have us believe that there is a militant group of Albanians extending from the United States to Kosova to Montenegro preparing to commit violent acts in Southeast Europe.
In reality, as one senior Western diplomat said off the record, the jailing of the Tuzi Fourteen is an effort “to break the link between the Albanian American diaspora and the Albanian communities in Montenegro. The growing strength of this link emerged in the effort of the residents of the Albanian-majority area of Malesia to reclaim municipal status for Tuzi, a status that was taken away by the Montenegrin government in 1957. It is not clear which parts of the Montenegrin government may have been involved. Some speculate that officials with strong links to Serbia are responsible, with the goal of undermining international support for the independence of Kosova by misrepresenting Albanians as a violent force in the heart of Europe. (Meanwhile, the Albanian population has a history of nonviolence in Montenegro, in spite of Slavic repression and oppression, and the Albanian vote in the May 2006 referendum tipped the balance in favor of Montenegro’s long sought after independence from Serbia.)
Others speculate that Albanian politicians linked to the ruling Montenegrin Slav party are involved in this case, hoping to diminish what they perceive to be as threats to their political power emanating from Tuzi. The timing of the arrest of the Tuzi Fourteen, just hours before the elections that would bring a candidate into the parliament representing Tuzi’s aspirations, has not gone unnoticed. Still others believe that the Montenegrin government was drawn into an operation by the international law enforcement community in its “war on terror,” an operation that went wrong because an Albanian still at large in the case is an informant who helped manufacture it.
The longer the Tuzi Fourteen remain in jail without a trial date, the more questions will be raised about the real reasons for their incarceration. To bring the case of the Tuzi Fourteen into the light of international justice requires an investigation into and clarification of the politics behind their incarceration.
The Implications for Montenegro and the West
The United States and the European Union should be concerned about the status of this case—not just in relation to the prisoners who have been illegally arrested, tortured, and confined for months, but also in relation to what this case means for the future of a newly independent nation, which has been admitted to the United Nations and is seeking entrance into the European Union as a democratic, multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious state. Bolstering the illusion, rather than the reality, of a democratic Montenegro will be a disservice to the country and the region, and in the long-run, it will undermine the goal of the European Union to integrate the Balkans. As a democracy, Montenegro has the responsibility to adhere to the rule of law and to protect the freedom and human rights of all of its citizens, especially its large ethnic Albanian population and other minorities. This includes treating prisoners humanely and as innocent until proven guilty, and either releasing them or conducting a fair trial in a timely fashion. In the case of the Tuzi Fourteen, these basic protections have been egregiously denied.
April 1, 2007
Shirley Cloyes is Balkan Affairs Adviser to the Albanian American Civic League.