AIM: start

WED, 13 FEB 2002 01:16:54 GMT

Kosovo: Is the Arrest Season On?

AIM Pristina, February 5, 2002

A spectalular operation by UNMIK police and KFOR in Kosovo ended up in the arrest of three ethnic Albanians, suspected of having committed war crimes against civilians. Some 60 police and about as many NATO soldiers raided the offices where the war crimes suspects were working. They are believed to have committed their crimes against ethnic Albanian civilians between September 1998 and June 1999 in the region of Podujevo. The crimes involve abduction, physical assaults and a murder of five people who are considered in Kosovo as having collaborated with the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Yugoslavia charged by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague with war crimes. The tree arrested men used to be Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, active in the region of Podujevo, north of Pristina. They were ordered a one month detention and their identity has not been revealed. But the public learned soon that they are Latif Gashi, a member of the Kosovo Protection Corps, Naim Kadriu, a secretary of the Podujevo chapter of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, and Nazif Mehmeti, a Kosovo police member.

After their arrest the U.N. mission in Kosovo said new arrests of war crimes suspects were pending. "Such arrests are not carried out separately. Maybe there are other people linked to the suspects, and maybe there are other crimes," said the UMNIK spokeswoman. UNMIK also said that the three are held in a Pristina detention center, and the mission's spokespersons did not rule out the possibility of their transfer to The Hague, if the international war crimes court based in that city showed interest in their case.

An order to initiate investigation in the three ethnic Albanians was sent by international prosecurot Philippe Kornay on Nov. 28 last year. The suspects were questioned by an international investigating judge, Agnesca Kolonovietska Millart, but no information regarding the questioning has reached the public. Their lawyer, Tom Gashi, only said that two witnesses were presented against one of his clients, claiming they were repeatedly beaten by him in the period in question. Meanwhile it has been learned that against the other two there are 15 witnesses. Their indentity is being kept as secret, and only their initials have been released.

This is the first arrest of former KLA fighters on such suspicion, and as such has been marked by international officials as a very sensitive case. Because of that, acting UNMIK head Charles Brayshaw and KFOR commander French General Marcel Valentino have invites the three most influential Kosovo Albanian leaders in order ot inform them of the operation. The leaders, on their part, left the meeting visibly upset, but making no comment.

Only 24 hours later the first reactions followed. The Kosovo Protection Corps general staff (a civilian organization created after the KLA was disbanded) announced "the war crimes charges against the three former KLA members are grave and absurd." The staff dismissed all the charges saying they were not denying UNMIK the right to investigate activities of any Kosovo citizen because all were equal before the law. But it added that staff members were suprised "over the arrests of KLA fighters who fought against crime and Serb criminals side by side with the entire democratic world... If they want to instill justice in Kosovo, international community mechanisms should do their best to apprehend Serb criminals who committed crimes in Kosovo, and which move freely not only in Serbia, but in Kosovo as well," said a Kosovo Protection Corps press release. Almost identical was the reaction of certain Kosovo political forces, which expressed their "amazement" over the fact that so far only one Serb was tried for war crimes, and that a trial of another Serb has been draging on for quite some time now. Over 25 Serb war crimes suspects have escaped from a prison in the northern half of the divided town of Kosovoska Mitrovica, they added.

International officials immadiately after the arrest hastened to explain that the arrests had nothing to do with the organizations the suspects used to belong to or currently belong to. The acting civilian administrator of Kosovo, Charles Brayshaw said during a meeting with the Kosovo Protection Corps commander that the arrests were "individual acts carried out on the basis of reasonable doubt that charges should be brought against them. Now the court will decide whether they are guilty or not..."

For most of the political and other organizations in Kosovo, however, they are innocent. Jakup Krasniqi, secretary general of Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo said that the charges against the three former KLA members were meant to discredit the values of the war to liberate the Albanian people in Kosovo. He even said that "certain UN police circles were blackmailing and directly assaulting the values of the war and trying to incriminate the Albanian people's resistance and struggle for freedom. They all express suspicion over the document signed last November between the former UNMIK head, Hans Haekkerup and Serbian Deputy Premier Nebojsa Covic. This was thei main issue in the protests organized against the arrest inPodujevo and Pristina at which the release of the three Kosovo Albanians was demanded. Organizers and speakers (mostly senior officials of war veterans organizations and the independent student organization of Pristina University) said the arrests were politically motivated. War crimes charges were raised in orther to equalize the Serb genocide atih the KLA struggle, they said. They even accused UNMIK that it did nohing else but accommodated Belgrade. Some even claim that the arrests were deliberately carried out at the time the trial of Slobodan Milosevic is scheduled to begin.

On the other hand, some local observers believe that the arrests are linked to the developments related the forming of Kosovo institutions after general elections held on Nov. 17 last year. Among the arrested is an official of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, led by Hashim Thaci, the former KLA political leader and a man whom his party nominated for the office of Kosovo premier. They believe the arrest would make this party negotiating position in the talks about Kosovo's highest officials more vulnerable.

It seems, however, that the arrests is for international officials only the beginning of realization of their goals in fighting crime in Kosovo. UNMIK police commissioner Briton Christopher Albiston promised that this year will be a year of arrests of top criminals in Kosovo for which, according to him, all preprarations had been finalized. "This year you will see the arrest os some top criminals here," he said at the moment when masked police were arresting the three Albanians.

Besnik Bala