Even by local standards, it was a mockery of justice. The district court in the southern Serbian city of Nis last week found 143 ethnic Albanians guilty of terrorism and sentenced them to a total of 1,632 years' jail, with terms ranging from seven to 13 years. All of them, according to the prosecution, took part in attacks on Serbian forces in Kosovo near the town of Djakovica during last year's war, leading to the death of one police officer and two soldiers. "It is impossible to determine your individual guilt," said Justice Goran Petronijevic after the verdict was read out, "but that is not necessary." The defendants, brought into the court in groups of 20, stared in silent disbelief. The trial lasted less than five weeks. The defense lawyers insisted that their clients were civilians who took no part in the conflict. "Their only crime was that they were men of military age," said one defense lawyer, Teki Bokshi.
Some 300 km to the south, in Djakovica, friends and relatives of the accused were gathered around their radios waiting for the news. After the verdict, more than 10,000 people poured onto the streets in protest. In London, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook described the trial as "yet another sign of the desperation of the [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic regime, which is prepared to go to any lengths to repress dissident voices."
But there is little that public protest or international outrage can do to free the estimated 970 Kosovars held in Serbian prisons. Just like those from Djakovica, most of them were arbitrarily picked up from their homes or from the streets as nato was concluding its 11-week air war against Serbia. Then, as the Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo last June, they took along about another 2,000 prisoners. More than half were later released, but others were jailed after facing trials not unlike the one in Nis.
Among those still in custody is Flora Brovina, a 50-year-old physician, poet and women's rights activist from Pristina. Picked up from her neighbor's house on April 20 last year, Brovina was sentenced to 12 years' jail for providing medicines and treatment to the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Albanian guerrillas branded as terrorists by Serbia. "Flora never took part in the war. She is poetry itself," says her husband Ajri Begu, in a cafe in Pristina. Brovina has a serious heart condition, and spends most of her time in the prison hospital in Pozarevac, Slobodan Milosevic's hometown.
The prospects of an early release for her and the other Kosovars is dimmed by the fact that the international community has almost no leverage. By haste or negligence, the exchange of pows was omitted from the agreement nato and Yugoslav authorities signed in Kumanovo last June specifing the terms of Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo. Then the West cut diplomatic ties with Milosevic.
The issue has come back to haunt the international community's efforts to bring stability to Kosovo. "Albanians are using it as a pretext for revenge attacks on Serbs," says a top U.N. official in Pristina. The official says some ethnic Albanian leaders are tying cooperation with the U.N. mission in Kosovo to the prisoners' release. "We had a project to return several hundred Serbian refugees to Kosovo, but had to put it on hold because the Albanian leaders said they will not hear of it until all the prisoners are free."
Then there's the vexing issue of about 5,000 missing Kosovars, at least some of whom are presumably also in Serbia. "Some of them may be in military custody, but we never got through to that level," says Barbara Davis, who heads the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Belgrade. Her efforts to persuade Serbian authorities to release at least some prisoners have had only limited success. "It has been very difficult to get the international community to pay attention to this problem," says Davis. She is convinced that recent abductions of Serbs in Kosovo — about 1,000 have gone missing since nato was deployed — is linked to the detained and missing Kosovars. "It's a vicious circle," she says. "Deprivation of one person's human rights leads to the deprivation of someone else's."
Some believe that Milosevic wants to use the Albanian prisoners as bargaining chips for future negotiations with the West to end his present isolation. Others have a more dire explanation. "He is not looking for a bargain. He wants our mission to fail, and he is doing whatever he can to destabilize Kosovo," said a U.N. diplomat in Pristina. Judging by the protests in Djakovica, which have spread to several other towns in Kosovo, the Belgrade strongman seem to be getting away with it ... once again.