In-depth | Politics

Albanian ‘terrorists’ in Milošević’s prisons

By - 06.06.2023

Serbian politicians are talking about old terrorism charges against Kurti. Why now?

The formerly independent Serbian television station B92, now a prominent government-controlled mouthpiece, recently aired a TV spot titled “The Truth about the Struggle for Kosovo.” Among other things, the spot states that between 2000 and 2012 Serbian government officials, led by Vojislav Koštunica, granted amnesty to current Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti and 1,800 other “Albanian criminals.”

What the episode refers to is the fact that over 20 years ago, after Serbia passed amnesty laws, a large number of prisoners were freed, including Albanians from Kosovo, who were largely political prisoners.

The key message was supposed to be that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s policies are the opposite of the former governments and the current opposition, groups which the B92 spot portrays as having lacked the desire to fight for Serbia’s interests when Kosovo declared independence and lacking the interest to do so today. With the strengthening of the military, the building of highways and the stated resolve to never recognize Kosovo as an independent country, President Vučić is portrayed as championing the interests of Serbia and the Serbs.

The message of the B92 spot aligns with a message frequently presented by Serbian government officials recently, including President Vučić, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić.

“At whose behest did you release Albanian terrorists from prison? Who made you do that? At whose behest did you organize a red-carpet reception for Javier Solana […] in order to destroy the state union of Serbia and Montenegro?” Vučić said on February 2, addressing the opposition in the Serbian Assembly. “And then you brought about Kosovo’s independence.” 

Since this speech in the Assembly, the narrative of Albanian “terrorists” hasn’t let up. One representative statement was given by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić on April 15 in an interview with the daily newspaper Blic:

“In one way or another, all the current opposition members were part of the government until 2012. Hence, all of them were actively and directly involved in incremental efforts to let go of Kosovo and Metohija. It all started in 2001, when they released each and every Albanian terrorist and criminal from prison on their own whim, and 2004, when they stood and watched in silence a pogrom of Serbs in Kosovo.”

Nebojša Bakarec, a legislator from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), said something similar in the Assembly at the end of this May.

After stating that Miloš Jovanović, the president of the opposition party New Democratic Party of Serbia, fled to France when Serbia was “attacked by the criminal NATO because of Kosovo and Metohija,” Bakarec too repeated the now common line, that in 2001 the former ruling authorities of Serbia “released Kurti and 1,800 terrorists.” On a similar note, the streets of Belgrade have been covered for months with posters referencing Kurti’s release date in 2003, mocking “Frenchy Miloš” and trying to tie opposition parties to Kurti.

K2.0 analyzes how this narrative came about in the first place and why it’s being re-opened now. Who were these “terrorists” that Serbian government officials are talking about and how did they end up in Serbian prisons?

Arrests and conditions in prisons

Transferred to Serbia after the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement in 1999, the majority of these 1,874 Albanian prisoners had been charged with conspiracy to commit hostile acts and terrorism. Among them were minors, while one of the oldest prisoners was born in 1925.

Yugoslav prosecutors’ offices in Kosovo began to press charges against these people in 1996 and 1997. First held in Kosovo, the corresponding trials continued in Serbia after 1999. The conditions of Kosovar Albanians’ arrests and treatment in prison has been reported on by NGOs from Serbia, international organizations and independent media local and international. Fahri Musliu was one of the journalists who covered these issues.

“Serbian authorities treated them formally as captured terrorists, though these people were of all ages and genders and were seized by the police on the streets, in houses, in shops, and at work without weapons and without uniforms,” writes Musliu in his book, “Show Trials Against Kosovar Albanians (1999–2001).” 

“Their fates were terrible,” Musliu writes. “They neither had contact with their families nor access to legal assistance in Serbia beyond the support from the Humanitarian Law Center.”

A 2000 report published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) addressed the conditions Albanian prisoners faced in Serbian prisons, noting that many of them were facing “mortal danger.”

“Reports from recently released prisoners and from family members make clear that the prisoners’ conditions in the Serbian facilities are appalling, their health has been severely compromised, they are routinely subjected to mistreatment and torture, and their trials are travesties,” the ICG report states.

The Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC) in Belgrade analyzed 10,000 pages of court records related to trials against Albanian prisoners. In a 2017 report based on the analysis, the HLC writes that the Serbian judges who handed down sentences often ignored the defendants’ claims that they were subject to torture and had been forced into confessing to crimes.

Claims about torture have been corroborated by numerous testimonies. The case of Ekrem Jusufi is indicative of many others’ experiences. In a court in Niš he told the judge that he couldn’t remember whether the police put him through a paraffin test, which checks for gunpowder residue on suspects, because he had lost consciousness due to a brutal police beating.

According to testimonies, some of the prisoners died from beatings in Yugoslav prisons in Kosovo. Others were starved, kept from washing themselves and held in overcrowded conditions in tiny holding cells.

The case of Albin Kurti

At the end of 2022, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić appeared on the pro-government TV channel Pink where he stated that Albin Kurti, who was among the Albanian prisoners transferred to Serbia in 1999, was “arrested for separatist and terrorist activity as well as for encouraging such activity, although he claims that he was a political prisoner.”

Dačić’s statement was in line with the Niš District Court’s ruling from March 13, 2000, when the 26-year-old Kurti was sentenced to 15 years in prison for terrorism. According to a number of lawyers, there was no basis for this ruling.

According to the judges at the time, Kurti helped organize the pro-independence protests in 1997 before joining the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1998, where he worked as assistant to Adem Demaçi, the leader of KLA’s political wing.

In an interview with the Voice of America at the time, lawyer Husni Bitiqi said that the Niš District Court’s ruling was completely unfounded, his main argument being that organizing a protest without approval is a misdemeanor rather than a felony and was only punishable by a prison sentence of 60 days.

In addition, Kurti’s actions, as described in the judgment, have little resemblance to terrorist activity. It was written that Kurti “set up first-aid and blood donation training for KLA members and helped organize conferences” for the KLA.

The degree of objectivity and bias in the judges’ assessment of the indictees’ culpability is observable in the language they used in the judgments. Though court records tend to be dominated by bureaucratic language pertaining to facts, in Kurti’s verdict and in court decisions against other Albanian prisoners the KLA was frequently referred to as a “gang.”

Since Kurti repeatedly stated during his trial that he wanted no lawyer because he did not recognize the legitimacy of the court, he was given a court-appointed attorney who appealed the judgment too late, either inadvertently or on purpose. With the appeal dismissed, Kurti stayed in prison until he was pardoned more than twelve months later.

Biljana Kovačević Vučo — then the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights YUCOM — also drew attention to how unsubstantiated it was to find Kurti guilty of terrorism. In her letter to the Yugoslav Minister of Justice Momčilo Grubač, Kovačević Vučo called on him to pardon Kurti for the very simple reason that allegations set out in his indictment were completely uncorroborated.

Kurti was amnestied by Vojislav Koštunica in December 2001 after advocacy from NGOs, the international community and a number of Serbian political parties. 

The Gjakova group

In April 2000, 145 Albanians from Gjakova appeared before the Niš District Court. They were accused of participating in “terrorist attacks” against the Serbian police and the Yugoslav Army as members of the KLA and working to secede from Serbia. According to the indictment, the accused injured a police officer, seriously wounded four other people and three people were killed in the attacks.

There had been no single trial held in Yugoslavia over the past 50 years with so many defendants and it was seen by many as a political spectacle.

This seemed to be confirmed by the unprecedented verdict. The court, presided over by Goran Petronijević who went on to become a prominent Belgrade-based attorney, sentenced the indictees to a total of 1,632 years in prison.

The defense — maintaining that the prosecution failed to provide any valid evidence to support their allegations — appealed the decision. The case went to the Supreme Court of Serbia, where even the deputy prosecutor general suggested that the judgment be annulled.

The Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision, pointing to obvious flaws in the proceedings. One issue was that the prosecution gave no justification for the claim that the 145 people on trial were KLA members. Moreover, none of the witnesses directly implicated any of the accused in the shootings that happened during the fighting in Gjakova.

Apparently, the Serbian Supreme Court did the right thing in this case, but this seems not to have been a common practice. The HLC emphasizes that this court upheld equally questionable convictions in cases where similar contradictions or lack of evidence was prevalent.

Paraffin tests and unreliable witnesses

A large number of indictments against Albanian prisoners were based on paraffin tests, despite the fact that even expert witnesses assert that it cannot reliably account for firearm usage. Furthermore, since it was proven to be inaccurate, the test was widely rejected as legitimate evidence in the mid-20th century.

Indictments against Albanian prisoners were often based on confessions given to police officers or examining magistrates. During trials, the accused tended to firmly withdraw their confessions. The courts paid little heed to their claims that they were beaten or otherwise tortured and thus pressured into admitting to crimes.

Judges also often based their judgements on statements made by witnesses of questionable credibility.

One clear example of this was the case of Sokol Kabashaj which took place in the Požarevac court. Kabashaj was acquitted due to a rock-hard alibi: a stamp in his passport showed that he was outside Yugoslavia at the time of the attack he was accused of. And yet Shukrija Gashi was convicted of terrorism in the same case and sentenced to eight years in prison. Gashi’s verdict was based on the same flawed witness testimony that claimed to have seen Kabashaj and Gashi together at the crime scene.

The judges who passed baseless sentences that were later overturned or convincingly refuted in relevant analyses continued to practice law in judicial institutions across Serbia, including the Superior Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Cassation in Belgrade.

The revival of the narrative of wrongfully amnestied “Albanian terrorists” coincides with increasingly tense relations between Serbia and Kosovo and the stalled negotiations between Vučić and Kurti. The governing powers in Serbia are happily returning to this narrative to try to discredit the other side and, using pro-government media outlets, to label Kosovar Albanians as prone to terrorism.

The repetition of the claim that every Albanian who was imprisoned by Serbia is a terrorist is an attempt to erase the facts established 20 years ago and a sign of support for the unjust trials and judges that created this baseless claim in the first place during the Milošević era.

Though Serbian politicians are harking back to these trials with their accusations of Albanian terrorism, they didn’t appear to expect anyone to actually investigate the conditions and facts of these trials. Because the answer to the question of who the Albanian prisoners prosecuted by Serbia were and what conditions their trials were held under is different from what Vučić and Brnabić suggest.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.