Kosovo hunger strikes put UN under pressure

PRISTINA, May 11, 2000 -- (Reuters) Both Kosovo Albanians and Serbs have resorted to hunger strikes in protest at the plight of prisoners inside and outside the province.

Serb inmates in a prison in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, have refused all food for more than a week to vent their anger at that some of them have been detained for up to 10 months without trial, one of the many failings in the province's fragile postwar justice system.

In other cities, protesters have staged hunger strikes to draw attention to more than 1,000 Kosovo Albanians held in prisons across the boundary in Serbia, many of them detained during last year's war in the province.

The protests are a cause for concern for the United Nations administration which took charge of Kosovo last June, after NATO's bombing campaign drove out Serb forces to end state-sponsored repression of the province's Albanian majority.

"We're engaged in both issues," said Susan Manuel, a spokeswoman for the administration. "But both issues are not going to be resolved immediately."

Around 30 Serbs began the Mitrovica protest in April, first refusing prison food but accepting supplies from relatives. The demonstration is another potential source of unrest in a city which has been the scene of several violent postwar clashes.

"Bring me my son. He is innocent. Is he guilty because he's a Serb?" read the placard of one woman protesting outside the Mitrovica prison, which is heavily guarded by French soldiers.


The prisoners said they would stop eating completely at the start of this month and two of them have been hospitalised in the past few days, according to the UN, which has struggled to establish any sort of functioning justice system.

It first alienated Albanian lawyers by declaring applicable law in Kosovo would be that of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia but got them on board by revising its opinion to say that pre-1989 law, when Kosovo was autonomous, could also apply.

But this incensed Serbs, who maintain the UN should not even be setting up its own justice system.

"There's no reason to cut this judicial system from Yugoslavia," said Mitrovica Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic, noting Kosovo remained a part of Yugoslavia under international law.

Serbs have boycotted the entire judicial system set up by the UN in protest. International officials also see the long arm of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic behind the move, noting any international failures in Kosovo are in his interest.

The UN has decided the Serb prisoners, some of whom are suspected of war crimes, should not be judged by Albanians to ensure a fair trial. Having failed to persuade Serb judges to participate, officials are now recruiting foreign experts.

"To ensure a full and fair trial, they're trying to get enough international prosecutors-cum-judges-cum-defense lawyers," said Michael Keats of the UN regional administration in Mitrovica. "This is a slow process, unfortunately."

One foreign judge already working in Mitrovica has been unable to try any of the hunger-striking Serbs because of security concerns about trials involving sensitive issues such as war crimes in the volatile city, officials said.


To many Kosovo Albanians, hearing Serbs protest about a lack of justice smacks of irony. They are more concerned about Albanians in Serbian jails, reported to number more than 1,200 by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Human rights lawyers say many of the prisoners were detained arbitrarily, often rounded up during the conflict simply because they were men of fighting age. Campaigners also suspect the number of prisoners may be far higher than the official total.

Some 37 activists staged a hunger strike for more than a week until last weekend in the center of the capital Pristina to urge more international action to get prisoners released and uncover the fate of many people missing after the conflict.

The UN says it hopes to secure the appointment soon of a Special Envoy devoted to prisoners and is setting up a special commission to identify victims in mass graves across Kosovo.

Those measures in themselves, however, will not satisfy ethnic Albanians."No peace in Kosovo until the prisoners are released," is a slogan frequently seen at demonstrations all over the province.

Original article