UN urges Kosovo Albanians not to seek revenge for trial
DJAKOVICA, May 24, 2000 -- (Reuters) The top international official in Kosovo urged ethnic Albanians on Tuesday not to wreak revenge on Serbs for the mass conviction of 143 members of their community in a Serbian court.
Bernard Kouchner condemned the court hearing in the city of Nis as a "false trial" and said Monday's convictions were part of a strategy by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stoke up tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
His condemnation was echoed by Amnesty International, which said the trial had been "bluntly unfair", relied on tainted evidence and had been conducted under government pressure.
Speaking to distraught relatives of those sentenced, Kouchner appealed to them not to play into Milosevic's hands.
"I know that you have a great pain. But don't give the victory to Mr Milosevic," the head of Kosovo's United Nations-run administration told a meeting of hundreds of relatives in a theatre in Djakovica, the home city of those sentenced.
NATO's 78-day bombing campaign drove Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo and ended repression of the ethnic Albanian majority.
Although it remains legally a province of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, Kosovo has been under de facto international control since the Serb forces withdrew last June.
But international officials believe Milosevic rarely misses an opportunity to try to make their high-profile peacekeeping mission fail and see Monday's convictions as the latest example.
"Let all of you show the responsibility and dignity you always showed to us," Kouchner urged the relatives, many of whom wept as they recounted having their loved ones taken from them.
LOVED ONES TAKEN FROM THEIR BEDS
The 143 ethnic Albanians were accused of forming a unit of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army in the western town of Djakovica in April last year, during NATO's bombing campaign to end repression of Albanians by driving Serb forces out of Kosovo.
They had denied the charges. 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.
The Nis court sentenced the group to jail terms of between seven and 13 years.
"It is very difficult to have your loved ones taken from their beds, especially when they are innocent," Ferdeze Mullahasami, whose son was one of those convicted, told the public meeting.
"May God help them, and help you to get them released," she told Kouchner and a delegation of top international officials and local politicians who had traveled to the city with him.
Kouchner said he would help organize delegations from Kosovo to lobby around the world for the prisoners' freedom. "I am sure that in a few months - I don't know how many - that they will be released under international community pressure," he said.
Amnesty International said the Nis court had applied the principle of collective guilt to all the accused, despite the unreliability of the prosecution's key forensic evidence.
"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.
International officials believe over 1,000 Kosovo Albanians are in Serbian prisons, many detained during the Kosovo conflict.
Their fate is one of the most emotive issues for Kosovo Albanians, many of whom blame the international community for not securing the prisoners' release as part of the deal which ended the bombing and saw NATO and the UN move into the province.