Amnesty urges retrial for 143

LONDON, May 24, 2000 -- (Reuters) Amnesty International called on Yugoslavia on Tuesday to retry 143 ethnic Albanians jailed for terrorism, saying the "bluntly unfair trial" relied on tainted evidence and came under government pressure.

"A bureaucrat's rubber stamp rather than a judge's gavel appears to have been used to dispense justice in Nis," the London-based human rights group said in a statement.

"The presumption of innocence of each of the accused was not respected."

After a mass trial, a Serb court in Nis on Monday sentenced 143 ethnic Albanians to jail terms ranging from seven to 13 years. They were imprisoned for a total of 1,632 years.

The defendants were accused of forming a unit of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in the western town of Djakovica in April 1999, which was involved in attacks on Serb forces during last year's NATO air war.

Amnesty International said the prosecution's key forensic evidence - the "paraffin glove" test to detect the presence of gunpowder from recently fired weapons - was in doubt over its widely challenged reliability and potential for false readings.

The rights group also took issue with how the trial was conducted, pointing to the words of Judge Goran Petronijevic.

"There might have been shortcomings in the test, but the results must be accepted as valid because they were conducted in wartime conditions," he said after the verdict was read out.

"It is impossible to determine your individual guilt, but that is not necessary."

Human rights lawyers said the ethnic Albanians were picked up arbitrarily during a sweep of Djakovica by Serb forces that began a day after fighting with the KLA ended and the guerrillas had taken to the hills.

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