Serbian Court reduces Albanians' sentences

BELGRADE, Jul 20, 2000 -- (Reuters) A group of 20 Kosovo Albanians is due to be released later this week after a Serbian court halved their imprisonment from to two years from four, a human rights agency said on Wednesday.

Serbia's Supreme Court last week annulled sentences against a group of 24 Kosovo Albanians over "irregularities" in criminal proceedings and called for a retrial.

The district court in the eastern Serbian town of Pozarevac on Monday cut the sentences for 20 of the Kosovo Albanians, changing the charges from "terrorism" to "association for hostile activity".

"Under the ruling, their sentences expire on July 21, which means they are to be released on Friday," Mojca Sivart, a lawyer with the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center, told Reuters.

Sivart said the Pozarevac court's decision was "actually a compromise to cover for the time the 20 had already spent in prison".

The 24 were arrested in Kosovo in July 1998 and charged with carrying out shooting attacks in Orahovac, in which one Serbian policeman was killed and several others seriously wounded.

They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to four years by the Prizren court in March 1999, only days before NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia for its repression of majority ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

All the accused denied the charges. Four have since been released and have returned to Kosovo.

The Prizren court has relocated to Pozarevac in Serbia since Yugoslav forces withdrew from the province in June last year following the 78-day NATO air campaign.

The Humanitarian Law Centre said an estimated 900-1,000 Kosovo Albanians were still being held in Serbian prisons.

"We do not have exact numbers since a lot of Kosovo Albanians have been released lately, especially those held in detention under police decisions and against whom charges have not been pressed," Sivart said.

When NATO launched its air campaign, Yugoslavia introduced a state of war, under which police detention period was extended to 30 days from 72 hours.

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