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The Muckraker

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.

 

Colombian journalist denied a U.S. visa

One of Colombia’s foremost journalists, Hollman Morris, has been denied a visa by the U.S. State Department to pursue a year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

The visa denial comes after several years of highly critical reporting on the ties of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's administration to right-wing paramilitary squads. He and his brother, Juan Pablo, a producer, created a television show, Contravia, which airs on Bogota’s independent television channel. CIR interviewed them last year by Skype from their studio in Bogota about their reporting, in which over the course of several years they revealed the largely untold story of massacres and human rights abuses by the paramilitaries. Partly as a result of Morris’ reporting, one-third of the members of Colombia’s Congress has been under investigation for having financial ties to the paramilitary units.

In February, Morris discovered he was under surveillance by Colombia’s intelligence service, the DAS—a revelation that spurred an independent prosecutor’s ongoing investigation. The unearthed DAS documents have been collected and published by the Center for International Policy. At least a dozen DAS agents are now awaiting trial for the illegal surveillance, according to the Associated Press.

In March last year, attorneys with the Committee for a Free Press in Colombia publicly complained to the Inter American Press Association of the Organization of American States about the government’s harassment of Morris and other journalists. The OAS followed with a statement highly critical of the government’s threats against Morris and other journalists.

Morris has been widely recognized for his work—including by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. CIR helped him obtain an invitation to the Global Investigative Journalism Network conference in Geneva last April, but he was prevented from traveling to Switzerland at that time due to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano.

The outgoing Uribe administration has accused Morris of being part of the “intellectual bloc” of the left-wing FARC guerrillas, who have been on the other side of the Colombian civil war for much of the past two decades. President George W. Bush placed the FARC on the U.S. terrorist list, which empowers the government to deny those on the list travel to the United States as well as other privileges. The Uribe administration’s charges against Morris are based on having found email correspondence between Morris and a FARC commander suggesting that Morris played an intermediary role in trying to negotiate the release of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Bettencourt. The government also accuses him of being inexplicably present at a FARC redoubt where the guerrillas turned four hostages over to the Colombian military. Morris denies all the charges. He told CIR that he was present at the hostage release on a journalistic assignment for the Latin American History Channel.

Just over a week after Morris was informed of the visa denial, he was honored at the Universidead Javieriena, one of Colombia’s leading universities for his journalistic courage in the face of death threats and government harassment.

Watch the CIR interview with the Morris brothers:

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.

CIR Staff | Update: The Investigators | July 6, 2009

Link TV and CIR dig deeper with Colombian journalist Hollman Morris

Twelve journalists have been killed in Colombia in the past six years. Nearly 400 have had their lives threatened in the same period. Link TV and CIR dig deeper with Hollman Morris, the Colombian journalist who was featured in the first episode of "The Investigators," CIR's web-video series about investigative reporting.

On Link TV's "Latin Pulse," CIR's Mark Schapiro talks to Morris via Skype about new developments with his television show, Contravia—including a recent scandal involving the Colombian secret service, which had been conducting systematic surveillance of Morris’ mail, movements, and computer communications for years, according to documents released in the Colombian Congress in March.

Watch the episode from Link TV's "Latin Pulse" here:


>> Watch CIR's interview with Hollman and Juan Pablo Morris on "The Investigators." Learn more about CIR's web series about investigative reporters.

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."

CIR Staff | Update: The Investigators | June 18, 2009

'The Investigators' featured on PRI's 'The World'

Today, Public Radio International featured Michael Montgomery's reporting on Kosovo in their radio program, "The World." They also showcased CIR's web-video journals with Montgomery, part of our web-video series, "The Investigators."

From PRI:

At this time ten years ago, the war in Kosovo had officially ended. NATO troops and UN administrators were flooding into the province to enforce a peace agreement with Serbia. Following the peacekeeping force into Kosovo were hundreds of thousands of triumphant ethnic Albanians who had been expelled by Serbian forces during the war. The war was over, but not the violence. In the months that followed, hundreds of people were murdered or disappeared. Many victims were from the minority Serb population. Investigative journalist Michael Montgomery spent years investigating what happened to them. Now with the San Francisco-based Center for Investigate Reporting (CIR), he recently returned to Kosovo to produce a radio documentary for the BBC. Together with a team of Balkan reporters, he uncovered strong evidence that some abductees may have been secretly removed from Kosovo under the noses of NATO and the United Nations.

"The Investigators" is also a regular feature on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

Colombian secret police have been tracking journalist Hollman Morris

In April, CIR launched our new series The Investigators, highlighting the
work of investigative reporters around the world, with an interview with
Hollman and Juan Pablo Morris, brothers and creators of the Colombian
television show Contravia. The show has been one of the few journalistic
sources of independent reporting to investigate human rights abuses by
Colombia's right-wing para-military groups and their connections to high
political and financial figures.

We've just received news from Hollman Morris in Bogota of an extraordinary
development: Documents released yesterday in the Colombian Congress confirm that the country’s intelligence service, the DAS, has been conducting systematic surveillance of Morris’ mail, movements, and computer communications for several years. This is part of a larger process at play in Colombia to marginalize independent journalists, human rights activists, and attorneys who are determined to provide unbiased reports on the players, from all sides, in Colombia’s long-running civil war.

The revelations are described on Contravia’s website here.

Watch CIR's interview with the Morris brothers:

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.

Sincerely,

Michael Montgomery
Special Correspondent
Center for Investigative Reporting
www.cironline.org

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
_____________________
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.