In an ominous sign that those working to uphold the law in Serbia are in growing danger, Teki Bokshi, who was representing many of the 2,000 ethnic Albanians held in Serbian jails, was arrested five days ago by plain-clothes police and taken away in mysterious circumstances.
One of his colleagues received a phone call from Mr Bokshi a day after his disappearance but the call was cut off and nothing has been heard of him since. The Serbian Ministry of the Interior has failed to respond to requests for information.
Mr Bokshi, a Kosovo Albanian lawyer, was working for the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC), a human-rights organisation in Belgrade.
The United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, Jiri Dienstbier, and Amnesty International sounded the alarm among the international community and human rights activists about Mr Bokshi's arrest.
Barbara Davis, the representative to former Yugoslavia for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: "The special rapporteur has asked the Serbian authorities if they would explain Bokshi's whereabouts and help resolve his arbitrary detention. I hope this situation will not lead to a setback for all detainees." Amnesty International said it was "seriously concerned for Mr Bokshi's safety", and urged people to send letters to President Slobodan Milosevic.
Two lawyers, Ibish Hoti, and Mustafa Radoniqi, were with Mr Bokshi when he was arrested. The trio had met Kosovo Albanian detainees jailed in the southern town of Mitrovica. They were driving the 130 miles back to Belgrade when, 10 miles from the capital, they were ordered to pull over by a man in a grey Mercedes that had official Ministry of Interior licence plates.
Three men, in plain clothes, got out of the Mercedes and took the keys of the lawyers' car from the driver. They ordered Mr Bokshi to accompany them back to his Belgrade hotel to pick up his identity documents.
When alerted, Natasa Kandic, the executive director of the HLC, issued a request to the Serbian Ministry of Justice for information on why Mr Bokshi was being held. Yesterday, she had still not received any information.
Ms Kandic said she received a phone call from Mr Bokshi on Saturday, the day after his disappearance. According to Ms Kandic, Mr Bokshi said "I am here", before the phone was cut. Ms Kandic says she doesn't know where "here" is.
For those who have met Mr Bokshi, the arrest of this most moderate figure is a particular outrage. He is one of the rare individuals who inhabits the increasingly narrow common ground where Serbs and Albanians come together to fight for human rights.
Greying, mild-mannered Mr Bokshi worked side by side with colleagues from all ethnic groups. He was instrumental in winning the release last month of 19 Kosovo Albanian children, aged 13-17, being held in Serbian prisons.
He was due to defend 28 Kosovars being held in President Milosevic's home town, Pozarevac, tomorrow. According to Ms Kandic, the 28 were taken by Serbian police from a convoy of refugees trying to flee the province during Nato air strikes. "We had expected them to be released since they were all taken from a civilian refugee column," Ms Kandic said. "But now that Bokshi has been arrested, we don't know."
The trial of the prominent Kosovo pediatrician, leader of the Kosovar League of Women and human rights activist Flora Brovina is also due to resume tomorrow in the southern Serbian city of Nis. Ms Brovina's trial, which began last month, has helped to raise international attention to the issue of the thousands of Kosovo Albanians being held in Serbian jails, many of whom have not been charged.
Some 300 Kosovo Albanians have been released from Serb jails since June, but almost 2,000 are still confirmed as held. A Western official said it appeared that hundreds more were being held by "non-state actors", who were demanding ransom money of up to $50,000 (pounds 30,000) per head for their release.
The Western official confirmed that a "prisoners market" was active north- east of Podujevo, near Kosovo's provincial border with Serbia. Ethnic Albanians were encouraged to pay middle men to secure the release of Kosovo Albanians, who were often not released after the payment.Reuse content