Amnesty law does not contribute to reconciliation with embattled Kosovo

Judging by the reaction of the Serbian public, including the media and non-governmental human rights organizations which participated in drafting the new Amnesty Law, the Federal Ministry of Justice has come out with a legal act that places Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia among states in which the rule of law prevails.

The law would be just if Serbia were known only for its “draft-dodgers.” The general amnesty of all the men who fled Serbia to avoid military duty will certainly help to shed light on the resistance of individuals to the militant policy and practice of the previous government. However, there are still some 600 Kosovo Albanian political prisoners in Serbia and most of them are not covered by the law. Only about 200, who are due to be released in May or June this year, will be amnestied. The majority will continue to languish in Serbian prisons, with only the hope of the Supreme Court’s clemency or being pardoned by the FR Yugoslavia President as Flora Brovina was.

Who are the Kosovo Albanians who are to remain imprisoned in keeping with the Ministry’s perception of justice: prisoners in the Dubrava Penitentiary in Kosovo who were injured during the NATO bombing of the institution on 19 and 21 May 1999, or wounded by Serbian police and paramilitaries who killed over 100 prisoners with hand launchers, grenades and small arms fire just after the air raids; civilians from Djakovica who were first separated from their families and then taken into custody solely because they were of military age; men tried before Kosovo courts in 1998 against whom proceedings have not yet been concluded; Belgrade University students who have been in solitary confinement for over one and a half years now; members or supporters of the Kosovo Liberation Army who were convicted of smuggling weapons into FR Yugoslavia territory, and ordinary criminals. There is not a single one among them who has been charged with or convicted of a war crime or killing of non-Albanian civilians.

Redzep Musaku i Bujar Himaj were among the Albanian prisoners transferred to Serbia from Kosovo on 10 June 1999. The amnesty is meaningless for them for they both died on 11 June 1999 as the result of the beating they were subjected to. Virtually all the Albanian prisoners were beaten, including the sick, the wounded and minors. During the riots in Serbian prisons last year, convicts openly said that Albanians received smaller portions of food and slept for months on bare concrete floors. To this day, prisoners transferred to the Belgrade Central Prison from the penitentiary in Sremska Mitrovica on October 2000 have to bed down on the floor.

That Kosovo Albanians were arrested arbitrarily by police, the Yugoslav Army and paramilitary groups during the NATO bombing is evident from the fact that the previous government released about 1,350 of them, including those accused of terrorism. Had their trials been fair, they would have been acquitted. But the practice of the courts was to find them guilty and sentence them to terms equaling the time they had spent in custody and then release them. In this way, the courts denied them the possibility of filing actions for unlawful arrest and custody and seeking damages. A great many Albanians paid some judges, prosecutors and lawyers in Kosovo who promised them their freedom. Nor is it a secret that some people in the Ministry of Justice were involved in such fraudulent practices and deception of Albanian prisoners and their families.

Momcilo Grubac, the Federal Minister of Justice, said recently that he had information that “proceedings against Kosovo Albanians were improperly conducted and, in many cases, the charges were of terrorism although other criminal offenses were involved.” On 11 January, Minister Grubac told a news conference that he would go to the Serbian Supreme Court and seek information from its acting President about appeals which have not been considered.

The Minister of Justice should have gone to the Supreme Court before submitting the Amnesty Law for adoption. The cause of justice and truth required him to study each individual case in order to be sure that he was making the right decision. As it is, he gave precedence to his political conviction that caution is necessary in dealing with Albanian prisoners. He, who has spoken so often of truth commissions, failed to take this opportunity to demonstrate that the new government is morally, politically and legally prepared for a process of reconciliation. A commission that does not know the truth about what happened in Djakovica or the Dubrava Penitentiary will not bring about reconciliation. The right to know the truth about the past leads to reconciliation, and the Albanians prisoners have part of that truth. It is evident that the sentencing of the Djakovica group to a total of 1,632 years in prison was the response of the previous regime to the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic by The Hague Tribunal and the accusation that he is responsible for the disappearance of 500 Albanians from the Djakovica area during the NATO intervention. Djakovica has gone through more than enough adversity and misfortune. The rule of law cannot be built on the backs of the Djakovica hostages.

Natasa Kandic