Thousands of Albanians in the Presheva Valley (southern Serbia) gathered on January 28 in the city of Presheva to demand the immediate release of ten Albanian men who were arrested by the Serbian paramilitary police last month for alleged war crimes during the 1999 war in Kosova. Most of the men were tortured and then transferred to prison in Belgrade. The protesters also called for amnesty for the local fighters who fought Serb forces in the Presheva Valley from 2000 to 2001, a conflict that ended in a peace agreement brokered by NATO, the United States, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The day before the protests, Albanian political parties in Presheva issued a joint declaration, calling on the international community to “mediate talks between the Serbian government and Albanian political representatives to evaluate a seven-year-old peace process and to stop the deterioration of the political and security situation.”
This is the moral course of action, given decades of human rights violations against the Albanian population in southern Serbia. It is also the pragmatic course of action, because the arrests—widely believed to be an effort on the part of the Serbian government to criminalize Albanians while they pursue the “silent” ethnic cleansing of the Presheva Valley and the partition of northern Kosova—threaten the stability of the Valley and the region. With wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the international community can ill afford renewed conflict in Southeast Europe.
The Arrest and Torture of Albanians in the Presheva Valley: The Facts of the Case
On December 26, 2008, from midnight to 2:00 a.m., hundreds of Serbian paramilitary police raided seventeen homes and arrested ten Albanian men in Presheva. The men, along with their wives and children, were terrorized at gunpoint, brutally treated, and, in many cases, tortured. Men, women, and children were taken from their beds and forced to stand in the snow in sub zero temperatures until 9:00 a.m. Women and children suffering from hypothermia and a range of injuries later were helped across the border by friends and relatives to the hospital in Gjilan, Kosova.
The families were among the poorest in the region. They did not know the Serbian language. Because there were no Albanian police or translators present at the scene, they did not even know why they were being attacked. To make it appear as if the arrests had been conducted in a proper fashion, the Serbian police brought in a crew to film them after the torture—as they were leading the prisoners away in handcuffs. The footage was dramatically broadcast throughout the region by Serbian state TV.
Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic issued a statement that the police had “found arms and proof” that the ten were former members of the Kosova Liberation Army and the UCPMB (the acronym for the Liberation Army of Presheva, Medvegje, and Bujanovc) found guilty of kidnapping 159 Serbian civilians, imprisoning them in Gjilan’s boarding school, and killing 51 between June and October 1999. Calling them “The Gnjilane Group,” Dacic said that the men sought to drive Serbs and other non-Albanians out of Gjilan at the end of the Kosova war. The indictment also implicated the arrestees in the spontaneous uprising in March 2004, in response to the drowning of an Albanian child in northern Kosova.
According to an Agence-France Press report on the day of the arrests, Serbian police and prosecutors said that they had waited for four months to apprehend the suspects, some of whom were visiting Presheva from Kosova and from Switzerland during the Christmas holidays, and that the operation had been elaborately planned “because of the extremely high risk as almost all of the suspects were armed.”
Acting on orders from the Serbian war crimes prosecutor, the police transferred nine of the men (Burim Fazliu, Faton Hajdari, Ferat Hajdari, Samet Hajdari, Ahmet Hasani, Agush Memishi, Sylimon Sadiku, Kamber Sahiti, and Nazif Hasani) to custody in Belgrade. A tenth suspect, Muhamet Nuhiu, was brutally beaten at the time of his arrest, but then charged only with weapons possession and released on 7000 EU bail. The Serbian media reported that the prosecution is investigating at least seven more suspects, some of whom are purported to be in Kosova.
The ten men in custody were physically harmed when they were arrested and subsequently subjected to sleep deprivation and other tortures. The latter was confirmed by relatives of four of the prisoners who visited their loved ones in prison in early January. It has since been confirmed that the prisoners are being tortured every day.
Analysis of and Responses to the Arrests
Interior Minister Dacic insists that the arrests were “not acts against Albanian citizens,” but rather against people accused of “serious crimes” who must be brought to justice in Belgrade’s war crimes court. But the facts appear to be different. Ahmet Isufi, who headed the Gjilan zone of the Kosova Liberation Army during the 1998-1999 war and who is today the deputy president of the Alliance for the Future of Kosova, went on record stating that “the arrests are based on false accusations. There are no missing Serbs in the Gjilan zone. The charges against Albanians from Presheva are absolutely untrue.” His statement is supported by Albanian politicians in the Presheva Valley and borne out by the fact that at war’s end and until today, Serbs, who make up 5 percent of Kosova’s population, comprise 16 percent of Gjilan’s.
Although individual acts of violence were committed against Serbs in Gjilan in 1999 and in 2004, none of the ten men (some of whom are former members of UCK and the UCPMB) were involved, according to reliable Albanian and Western sources speaking off the record. One of the men was only fifteen years old in 1999; more than half were civilians who never joined any people’s defense force; and several were not even in Gjilan during the periods cited in the indictment.
Riza Halimi, the only Albanian deputy in the Serbian parliament and the leader of the Party for Democratic Action, accused the police of using excessive force and of “militarizing” the region. The Organizing Council of Presheva issued a declaration calling on domestic and international politicians “to do everything possible to immediately release the prisoners.” They said that “they had no faith in Serbian courts and their politically motivated, biased trials, and that the case should be handled by an international court.”
Other political officials in the Balkans denounced the arrests as politically motivated and simply the latest effort by Serbia to destabilize the region, especially for the purpose of undermining Kosova as an independent state. On December 28, the Speaker of Kosova’s parliament, Jakup Krasniqi, insisted that the arrests were “intended to make Albanians and Serbs enemies and to provoke Kosova.” He called on Belgrade to “release the prisoners and be responsible at this important historic moment that the region and our two countries are going through.” He also called on the international community to “step up their pressure against the aggressive and repressive politics and war-inciting policy that Serbia is embracing these days.”
The arrests appear to be designed to achieve other aims as well. As Jonuz Musliu, Deputy Mayor of Bujanovc, told Agence France-Presse on December 28, “All of this action is an invention of the Serbian government aimed to deflect attention from its own problems and transfer them to the Presheva Valley.” Off the record, some officials and Western representatives have stated that, under the guise of upholding the rule of law and pursuing war criminals, Belgrade is using the arrests to deflect international attention away from Serbia’s ongoing attempts to destabilize northern Kosova and ultimately annex it. Equally important, the arrests are believed to be part of Serbia’s ongoing campaign to “silently ethnically cleanse” the Presheva Valley. By charging the men with war crimes, Serbia hopes to block the representatives of the international community in Belgrade from taking action on behalf of the prisoners. It is also believed by me and other analysts that Belgrade would welcome a violent response on the part of Albanians in the Presheva Valley as a way to justify the arrests before the international community.
At the same time, by arresting, torturing, and incarcerating poor and marginalized men, Serbia hopes to intimidate Albanians in the Presheva Valley into leaving for good. According to the 2002 census, there are 70,000 Albanians in Presheva, Medvegje, and Bujanovc. In reality, 30 to 40 percent of that number live outside the Valley as either guest or illegal workers. Meanwhile, Albanians are leaving the Presheva Valley every day, either for Kosova or the West, because life for the majority there has become unbearable, with no jobs and continual harassment by the Serbian police and military.
Background to the Unfolding Crisis in the Presheva Valley
The Presheva Valley (Presheva, Medvegje, and Bujanovc) is a predominantly ethnic Albanian community on Serbia’s southern border next to Kosova and Macedonia. In March 1992, after decades of anti-Albanian discrimination and repression, 99 percent of Albanians in the Presheva Valley voted in a plebiscite to become a “special political-territorial-constitutional region,” which would be reunited with Kosova in the event that the resolution of the final status of Kosova should entail the partition of northern Kosova
Neither Belgrade nor the international community recognized the will of the people. At the end of the Kosova war, withdrawing Serbian troops raped, pillaged, and burned their way through the Presheva Valley, driving out thousands of Albanian residents, most of whom have been unable to return to this day.
This, together with deplorable economic conditions (upwards of 75 percent of Albanians in the Presheva Valley are unemployed) and political disenfranchisement, led to the formation of the UCPMB, which combated Serbian security forces from 2000 to 2001. The fighting ended in March 2001, when both sides signed the declaration of demilitarization known as the Koncul Agreement. The Koncul Agreement called for major reforms on the part of Belgrade to bring genuine human and civil rights to its Albanian minority population, but most of the reforms have yet to be implemented. In addition, the construction of a large Serbian military base is nearing completion in Cepotin, just outside of Bujanovc. Albanians view this as a provocation and a ratcheting up of the Serbian military’s control of the Valley.
In a public declaration condemning the arrests on December 26, 2008, the seven Albanian political parties, along with the Council for Human Rights, in the Presheva Valley objected to the selective approach of Serbia, “which has taken no action so far in order to shed light on the crimes committed against the [Albanian] citizens of the Presheva Valley” before and after the Kosova war. They stressed Belgrade’s unwillingness to facilitate “the return of thousands of displaced Albanians citizens from the Presheva Valley, especially former UCPMB members and their families.”
They also emphasized the failure of Serbia to fulfill its obligations under the Koncul agreement. Albanians still live in poverty, have little representation in public institutions, and have no access to higher education. On November 28, 2008, about a month before the arrests, 8,000 protestors from Presheva, Medvegje and Bujanocv marched in the streets of Presheva, calling for the legalization of the use of the Albanian flag and the Albanian language in public, the opening of an Albanian university in the Presheva Valley, and the removal of the Serbian military from the region.
1. The disparity between the rights guaranteed to Serbs living in northern Kosova (which include their links to institutions in Serbia) and the denial of human and civil rights to Albanians in the Presheva Valley (including access to institutions in Kosova and Albania) is grossly unfair, violates international standards, and is now completely unsustainable. The international community should take a public position in support of Albanian rights in the Presheva Valley and insist that Belgrade end its abuses if it wants admission to the European Union.
2. There has been insufficient international response to the illegal arrest of the ten Albanians in Presheva and the torture of these men. The United States was more or less sidelined during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations. The transition is officially over, and because of the threat posed by the situation in the Presheva Valley to regional stability, action should be taken to investigate the basis of the arrests, publicly condemn the torture of the Albanian prisoners, and call for their release. The Council of Europe should also introduce a resolution on behalf of the prisoners, and the international human rights organizations in the region and around the world should add their voices.
3. Because the Albanian prisoners can be held under Serbian law in pre-trial detention for up to six months (their initial 30-day detention has just been extended for another two months) and for eighteen months to two years during the trial proceedings, immediate diplomatic efforts should be made to prevent this outcome. Serbia should be asked to produce evidence of criminal activity or otherwise drop the charges.
4. The amnesty that was granted to the former members of the UCPMB in the Koncul Agreement, along with other provisions of the agreement, should be respected.
5. The Albanian political parties and Council for Human Rights in the Presheva Valley, citing the ongoing politicization of the Serbian judiciary, have called for an international monitoring mission to follow the status of the ten arrestees. In addition to fulfilling this request, a special rapporteur for minority rights should be assigned to investigate the arrests and the status of Albanians in the Presheva Valley, including Serbian efforts to prevent the return of the thousands forced to flee during the Kosova war and the 2001 conflict as part of a campaign to “silently cleanse” Presheva, Medvegje, and Bujanovc of Albanians.
6. The Albanian political parties in the Presheva Valley should call for a meeting with Serbian President Boris Tadic and the ambassadors of the Quint nations (the European Union, the United States, Japan, Australia, and Canada to resolve the conflict.
7. The Presheva Valley leadership should refuse to carry out their duties at the municipal government level until a serious mediation process, involving Albanian, Serbian, and international officials, begins.
January 28, 2009
Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi is Balkan Affairs Adviser to the Albanian American Civic League.