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The Muckraker

Michael Montgomery's Blog

Del Ponte calls for international inquiry into Kosovo organ harvesting

Former UN war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte today called for an international criminal inquiry to examine grisly allegations of murder and human organ trafficking by senior Kosovo politicians.

The allegations were made in a report released earlier this week by European human rights investigator Dick Marty. A parliamentary committee of the Council of Europe approved the report today, sending it to a full assembly meeting in January.

“You cannot read this report and simply look away,” Del Ponte said in an interview from Argentina where she is the Swiss ambassador. “It must be followed up by an international institution capable of carrying out a thorough investigation and prosecutions in necessary.”

Del Ponte told the Center for Investigative Reporting that the complexity of the case made it unlikely that any national court could investigate the allegations, which span multiple countries and implicate Kosovo’s current prime minister, Hashim Thaci.

“What my experience shows me is that it is impossible for any national authority take this kind of an investigation to its end,” said Del Ponte, who was the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia from 1999 to 2007.

She recounted the challenges faced by tribunal staff when when they tried to investigate organ trafficking allegations in 2004.

“They were stopped,” she said, rejecting claims that the tribunal had ever concluded that the allegations were unfounded. A thorough criminal investigation into the allegations has never been carried out, she said.

Del Ponte also questioned whether the EU mission in Kosovo, known as Eulex, has the resources and political support to handle the case.

“I fear that Eulex will not be able to do this investigation because you can imagine the obstacles they would face with personnel based in Kosovo,” she said. Del Ponte said investigators and witnesses face serious threats from the Albanian mafia and former Kosovo Liberation Army operatives.

If Eulex is unable to take on the investigation, Del Ponte said there were two other options--the International Criminal Court in The Hague, if it receives a special mandate from the UN Security Council, or a stand-alone court modeled on the special tribunal for Lebanon.

The allegations of murder and organ harvesting by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were raised in Del Ponte’s 2008 memoir, “Madam Prosecutor,” and in a series of investigative reports by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the BBC. Those revelations spurred the Council of Europe investigation.

Del Ponte praised Marty and his final report.

“Dick Marty is a courageous man and he’s not under political pressure or looking to score political points.”

The governments of Kosovo and Albania have strongly denied the allegations.


Arrest in Kosovo points to secret camps

International police in Kosovo have arrested a former guerrilla commander suspected of war crimes in a widening investigation that was spurred by our exposé of secret detention camps run by the Kosovo Liberation Army during and after the 1999 war.

Local media reported European Union police detained Sabit Geci on Thursday following a raid on his home in Pristina.

Witnesses have linked Geci and other KLA commanders to the torture and murder of prisoners at an operations base in the Albanian border town of Kukes.

A series of joint reports last year by CIR, the BBC and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network detailed evidence of the abuses and killings following a multi-year investigation.

A wide range of sources—from survivors to former KLA soldiers—spoke of a network of secret camps scattered throughout Kosovo and Albania where civilians and POWs were held, tortured and sometimes killed.

In some cases the abuses allegedly occurred under the noses of UN officials and NATO troops, who arrived in Kosovo in June 1999.

We reviewed internal documents that showed United Nations officials knew about the allegations as early as 2002 but failed to launch a serious investigation. What’s more, officials at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague destroyed physical evidence that related to some of the allegations.

This is the first case of possible war crimes on Albanian soil and it could lift the lid on Albania’s covert support of the KLA and links to wartime abuses.

Sources close to the investigation say the government of Albania refused to cooperate with EU prosecutors despite an earlier pledge to help international investigators looking into the allegations.

There’s been no reaction from Kosovo’s current leadership, which is dominated by former KLA commanders. But here’s what Kosovo’s prime minister and former KLA political director Hashim Thaci told us last year when pressed about the Kukes allegations.

"It just didn't happen," Thaci said. "At any time, in any case, in any place, any space —this has nothing to do with the Kosovo Liberation Army."

I spoke about these developments today with Marco Werman on PRI's The World.

Kosovo: Journalists under fire

Advocacy groups are rallying around embattled Kosovo journalist Jeta Xharra following a vitriolic campaign against her in pro-government newspapers and a series of anonymous death threats.

Xharra hosts a popular and controversial television show in Pristina and is affiliated with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). BIRN reporters collaborated on our investigation into war crimes linked to former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Xharra hosted a lively discussion of the project on her show (I joined in via Skype).

Former KLA leaders dominate Kosovo’s current government so it wasn’t especially surprising that pro-government newspapers attacked Xharra and BIRN soon after our reports were published. What was surprising was the viciousness and implicit calls to violence in some of the commentaries. Infopress, a newspaper that gets much of its advertising revenue from the government, likened the BIRN journalists to Serbian spies and compared their work to fascist propaganda. A subsequent Infopress commentary said the author "would be honored to shake the hand of any such dutiful Albanian" who took it upon himself to "punish" the BIRN reporting team. Telephoned death threats to Xharra followed the newspaper smears.

"In a post-war society such as Kosovo where the wounds are still open, to compare someone to Milosevic's Serbia is not only an insult and incitement to hatred, but could also be life-threatening," Xharra said in a statement published by BIRN-Kosovo.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, who served as the KLA’s political director during the war, has been silent on the Xharra case, as has Kosovo’s president, Fatmir Sejdiu. Both men enjoy warm relations with Washington and have met with senior members of the Obama administration. Last February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Kosovo as the world’s “newest democracy,” following a meeting with Sejdiu.

But a number of human rights and press freedom groups are questioning Kosovo’s commitment to democracy, at least based on the government’s pointed refusal to support Xharra. Here’s what the Committee to Protect Journalist’s Joel Simon said in a June 17 letter to Thaci:

The death threats against Xharra and her team of journalists are deplorable and put Kosovo's fledgling democracy at risk. Press freedom in Kosovo must be protected as a fundamental human right for an independent and stable society. We ask you and your government to immediately and unequivocally condemn this attempt to intimidate an independent journalist and her colleagues, hold accountable all those responsible for making the threats, and ensure the safety of Jeta Xharra and her BIRN-Kosovo colleagues.

So far, Kosovo’s leadership hasn’t responded to appeals from a handful of NGOs. And so far, they’ve refused to order an investigation into the heart of the current allegations: that KLA operatives abducted and then murdered hundreds of Serbs as well as Roma and other Albanians in the months after the official end of the Kosovo war ten years ago.

Sources tell me the new European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) has opened a formal inquiry into some of the allegations. But the jury is still out on whether EULEX is ready to challenge Kosovo’s current political bosses if evidence points in their direction.

Michael Montgomery has been reporting in the Balkans for twenty years. His recent radio documentary for the BBC investigated the kidnappings of Serbs during and after the war in Kosovo. Montgomery's video journals from that reporting trip appeared in CIR's web video series, "The Investigators."

UN admits evidence from Srebrenica was destroyed

A top UN war crimes prosecutor has now conceded that prosecution staff in The Hague destroyed hundreds of pieces of evidence recovered at Srebrenica, scene of one of Europe's biggest massacres since the Nazis.

Media in Bosnia reported today that Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor for the Hague-based international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) told a survivor's group that around 1000 items recovered in mass graves at Srebrenica had been destroyed because they posed a health hazard. UN sources who have worked extensively with the tribunal told me tribunal staff dumped the material for a more mundane reason—it smelled bad.

Brammertz's reported comments came two days after I wrote that more than 3000 pieces of evidence and artifacts collected over the years by war crimes investigators may have been destroyed at the tribunal. 

A tribunal spokesperson had earlier declined to comment on the allegations, saying such information was "confidential."

Forensic experts I spoke with today questioned the tribunal's rationale for destroying the material.

"This kind of stuff smells terribly. It's part of the business," said one expert on evidence preservation. "If that smell bothers you, you shouldn't be in this business."

Several experts told me technology is widely available to "freeze-dry" documents such as identity cards and photographs that might be in an advanced state of decay. This process can preserve and even restore documents and remove strong smells.

"The goal is always to preserve the maximum amount of evidence," says Michael "Sonny" Trimble, a forensic archeologist with the US Army Corps of Engineers. "To dispose of something simply because it smells violates all the basic principles of evidence preservation."

Trimble has worked extensively on excavating mass grave sites, including victims of Saddam Hussein's notorious Anfal Campaign. Trimble says his team used the "freeze-dry" technique to save a number of identity cards found on victims.

"The technology is there to preserve material pulled from mass graves," Trimble says. "And most of it is not particularly expensive."

However, he added that this kind of work is labor-intensive, with each document sometimes requiring hours of work by a highly-trained preservationist

Sources tell me the ICTY relied on these techniques in its early years to save some documents from decay. Why this wasn't done in the case of the Srebrenica material is one of many questions the tribunal will face in the coming days.

CIR's "The Investigators" series followed Michael Montgomery on his reporting trip to the Balkans this spring, where he was investigating the killing of Serbs who disappeared after the end of the war in Kosovo. Michael's resulting radio documentary aired on the BBC. Go behind the story with Michael in CIR's web-video journal "Searching for Kosovo's Missing."

Did the UN destroy more war crimes evidence?

 Michael Montgomery reporting in the Balkans.

A scandal is brewing at the United Nations over the possible destruction of thousands of items of evidence and artifacts recovered by UN war crimes investigators in the Balkans.

I reported several weeks ago for the BBC about how the UN had apparently mishandled evidence of possible war crimes by Kosovo Albanian guerrillas during and after the 1999 war. (See CIR web-exclusive video journals of my reporting trip here.)

My report revealed that officials at the Hague-based UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had destroyed physical evidence at the center of an investigation into allegations of organ harvesting. The material included used medical supplies—drug vials, syringes and IV drip bags—discovered in 2004 by a UN team during a search of a house in central Albania. The team was investigating allegations that civilians captured in neighboring Kosovo by operatives from the Kosovo Liberation Army were taken to the house, subjected to organ harvesting and then killed.

Now, it seems that other items recovered elsewhere by UN investigators and stored in a secure location in The Hague have been destroyed by the ICTY’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP).

According to three sources with direct knowledge of the episode, items dumped by the OTP included a batch of identity cards recovered from victims of the mass murder at Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. The identity cards were burned in an industrial incinerator in The Hague and their destruction was authorized by the OTP’s chief of investigations, according to my sources. What’s more, the sources say the OTP did not inform the Bosnian government or families of the Srebrenica victims that the identity cards were being destroyed.

In total, as many as 3,000 pieces of evidence and artifacts were destroyed by the OTP, according to Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor. The significance of the other materials remains unclear since the ICTY has refused to comment on the allegations.

Two former OTP staffers were shocked by the development.

“This material was of enormous historical value,” says one former investigator, who asked not to be named because of ongoing work with the tribunal. “This was the biggest act of killing in Europe since the Nazis. This was genocide. And for some of the families of the victims, this may have been all they had to mark their loss. This should be a scandal.”

Outside experts generally give the ICTY good marks in how it catalogues and stores evidence. But they say the Tribunal’s evidence unit has been overloaded by the mass of materials arriving from the Balkans.

I emailed Tribunal spokesperson Olga Kavran about the allegations. Here’s our exchange:

April 22, 2009

Ms Kavran:

I’m writing to follow up on our recent telephone conversation.

I recently produced a radio documentary about the fate of civilians who disappeared during and after the 1999 war in Kosovo. One of the episodes examined in the documentary was a 2004 investigation of a house in central Albania by experts from UNMIK and the ICTY’s Office of the Prosecutor. I reported that items recovered by investigators at the house and sent to the ICTY—including used medical supplies—were eventually destroyed by the OTP.

It has come to my attention that other items collected by investigators in the Balkans and shipped to the ICTY have also been destroyed by the OTP (the office of Serbia’s special war crimes prosecutor has cited a figure of 3,000 items in total). The items destroyed included a batch of identity cards recovered in and around Srebrenica following the mass killings there in 1995, according to my sources.

Since these items are not part of any ongoing investigation, I am seeking comment about why they were destroyed and, more broadly, the process the OTP follows in deciding whether or not to preserve evidence and artifacts collected in the field.

Thank you in advance for your assistance.


Michael Montgomery
Special Correspondent
Center for Investigative Reporting

Dear Michael,

Sorry for not responding sooner.

Unfortunately, I am not able to comment or provide you with any details in
relation to your question.

As a general policy, the Office of the Prosecutor does not disclose to the
public or discuss in the media any material collected during investigations
unless such material becomes part of public proceedings before the
International Criminal Tribunal. Like national Prosecutors' Offices, the
OTP has developed a practice for the retention, storage and destruction, if
necessary, of material which it has obtained. Such internal work practices
are also confidential.

Best regards,
Olga Kavran
Spokesperson for the Prosecutor

* * * * *

CIR's web series "The Investigators" followed Michael Montgomery during his reporting trip to the Balkans this spring. In part one of "Searching for Kosovo's Missing," Montgomery takes viewers to the Albanian house where UN investigators collected evidence of possible organ harvesting.