Serbs hold hundreds of Kosovo 'hostages'

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The Independent Online

A year after Nato began its bombing campaign to "liberate" Kosovo, more than 1,400 ethnic Albanians remain incarcerated in prisons in Serbia, many of them facing trumped-up charges of "terrorism".

Most of them, held in eight jails around the country, were rounded up by Serb security forces in Kosovo in swoops which began in 1998 when the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began its uprising. Many were locked up during the 11 weeks of the Nato air strikes.

All were transferred from Kosovo into Serbia proper by June, before the arrival of the Nato-led K-For peace-keeping force and the United Nations administration in the province. Many were sentenced by Serbian courts in sloppy and irregular trials, sometimes with no evidence being presented.

The judges are, as a rule, Serbs who once worked in Kosovo but left when their administration did in June. Pristina district court is now based in the southern Serb town of Nis, while Prizren District Court is based in Pozareva, in the east.

Those recently jailed include the student leader Albin Kurti, 25, who was given a 15-year sentence, and the poet and physician Flora Brovina, 50, who got 12 years. The brothers Luan and Bekim Mazreku had their trial postponed for several weeks. All the charges were "terrorism" and "conspiring to commit hostile acts aimed at destabilising the security of Serbia".

Teki Boksi, an Albanian lawyer at the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC), a non-governmental rights organisation, said: "Belgrade can call the KLA a terrorist group. But the true KLA members and sympathisers either took up arms from 1998 or were killed in clashes with Serb security forces. The people who remain in Serb prisons are not therefore significant figures, but the regime is keeping them for propaganda purposes.

"The worst part of it is that the trials are run by Serb judges who left Kosovo... Those people are frustrated... They lost their homes, property, almost everything."

Ajri Begu, the husband of Ms Brovina, thinks that she, like many others, could be "a bargaining chip, a hostage to be traded by the [Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic's] government for concessions".

According to a report by the International Crisis Group, Mr Milosevic is trying to undermine UN rule in Kosovo by keeping the Albanians in jail. "Belgrade appears to have little interest in releasing these prisoners, who have become hostages in... Milosevic's efforts to keep Kosovo destabilised, jeopardise the success of the international mission there and demonstrate Kosovo remains under his rule," it said.

The HLC says 2,050 Albanian prisoners between the ages of 16 and 73 were transferred to Serbia by June. Around 600 have been freed. For some, there were no grounds for a trial. Many were formally indicted and sentenced to terms that matched the time already spent in prison.

Families, and even lawyers, face intimidation when leaving Kosovo to visit the prisoners. They are dependent on the whim of the Serbian police. Myzacete Berisha, whose two sons who are being tried in Belgrade, said: "We can be turned back for days on end; we try different crossings during the day, hoping to meet a policeman who is not in a bad mood."

The UN administration in Kosovo is, for now, powerless to help Albanians in Serb jails. No UN resolution or agreement signed by Belgrade and Nato takes them into account. It is believed that the Kosovo interim administration will soon ask for an internationally sponsored document that would enable the return of the prisoners. "There is also another hope," Mr Boksi said. "The change of regime in Serbia would certainly make things easier."

* Husnia Butyqi, the lawyer who defended the poet and physician Flora Brovina, was said to be in a serious condition yesterday after being beaten up by four masked men. (AP)