Belgrade's jailing of activist sparks international protest

THE JAILING in Serbia of Flora Brovina, an Albanian paediatrician, writer and women's activist, has attracted international protest and highlighted one of the unresolved issues of the Kosovo war - the estimated 1,500 Albanian political prisoners still held by the Belgrade regime.

Dr Brovina, 50, was arrested in Pristina in April and has now been sentenced to 12 years by a court in the Serbian city of Nis for "conspiring to commit hostile acts" and "terrorism" aimed at promoting the independence of Kosovo. The evidence against her included possession of wool donated by Oxfam, which she distributed to displaced Albanian women to knit sweaters. The British-based aid organisation also has projects in Serbia, but as Nikola Barovic, a Belgrade lawyer, put it: "In Stalin's time one got 10 years for nothing. Here one gets 12."

Another Serbian legal figure, Natasha Kandic, head of the Humanitarian Law Centre, said: "The sentence against Flora Brovina is a political measure against her [and] clearly has nothing to do with the alleged crime Brovina has committed."

Other Serbian opposition groups described her imprisonment as "ethnic revenge", especially after it emerged that both the judge in Dr Brovina's trial, Marina Milanovic, and the prosecutor, Miodrag Surla, come from Kosovo. Both worked in the district court of Pristina, which hurriedly moved to Nis when the Serbian administration withdrew from the province in June. Serbian judges are named by parliament and are considered part of the regime.

Although she suffers from health problems - she has high blood pressure and slight paralysis on her left side - Dr Brovina is reported to have refused to lodge an appeal against her sentence. Married to Ajri Begu, who is now an economic adviser to the United Nations administration in Kosovo, she supported herself during her medical studies by writing for magazines, and has published several books of poetry. She is unusual in her generation of Albanian women for her involvement in public affairs - in 1992 she founded the League of Albanian Women in Kosovo to protest against Serbian rule and to provide humanitarian assistance to Albanian women and children.

Although she insisted the organisation was non-political, she organised numerous protests. When Serbian forces staged bloody reprisals in the Drenica region early in 1998, she led 20,000 women in a march through Pristina.

The Serbian authorities had probably marked Dr Brovina out as an opponent much earlier, however. Her PhD thesis was on a spate of mysterious poisonings in Kosovo in 1990, when thousands of Albanian schoolchildren were sent to hospital with head and stomach pains and vomiting. Some experts blamed mass hysteria, but a UN toxicologist who analysed the victims' blood and urine samples found signs of sarin poisoning. Several years later it emerged that the Yugoslav army had produced the deadly nerve gas.

Gradimir Nalic, of the Yugoslav Committee of Lawyers for Human Rights, said Dr Brovina was "a scapegoat". "The whole process against her," he added, "showed the arrogance of the regime. There was also a message in that for the first time it was not an anonymous, simple ethnic Albanian on trial, but an intellectual, a physician, a human rights activist."

Baton Haxhiu, editor of Koha Ditore, Kosovo's most prominent Albanian- language newspaper, described Dr Brovina as a "hostage" of Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic. "Her imprisonment, with the Serbian elections coming up, helps him to show his people that Kosovo is not lost," he said. "Milosevic can say: `This is how we deal with separatists and terrorists on our soil.' It is also useful in his dealings with the international community - Flora and the rest of the Albanians held in Serbia can be used as bargaining chips as he tries to escape isolation."

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