Witness safety could hamper Kosovo organ trafficking investigation

A major investigation into allegations that senior Kosovo political figures ran a violent criminal network could be hindered by witness safety and other security concerns.

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg adopted a series of resolutions Tuesday, calling on regional governments and the EU rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, to launch a new investigation into allegations of high-level corruption, murder and organ trafficking raised by special rapporteur Dick Marty a month ago.

Marty’s report was spurred by a series of investigative reports produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Balkan Insight and the BBC.

The contentious issue is whether any institution based in Kosovo or Albania is capable of investigating the claims. Marty has said he is open to working with EULEX or other institutions but only if they can guarantee the safety of witnesses and confidential information.

EULEX insists it can provide adequate security for witnesses, but Western officials, human rights groups and Marty doubt the mission has the capacity to run the probe.

Relocating witnesses outside Kosovo and Albania is emerging as a key obstacle. A Western diplomatic source close to EULEX said the mission did not have any formal relocation agreements with large countries outside the region.

“Kosovo is a small country. If you can’t move witnesses and their families far away - in some cases forever - you won’t be successful in going after the big fish,” the source said.

EULEX spokesperson Karin Limdal declined to say whether the mission had secured agreements to enable witnesses to live under protection in other countries.

“EULEX has the capacity to provide witness security to the highest international standard, which has so far been successful,” Limdal said.

Western officials pointed out that no witness has been killed since EULEX took over authority from the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK.

“Given the circumstances and lack of resources and support from outside countries, EULEX is doing a pretty good job,” a Western diplomat based in Pristina said. “The question is whether that’s good enough.”

In the controversial report for the Council of Europe, Marty cites Western intelligence sources and eyewitness testimony linking outgoing Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and close associates to a network of “criminal entrepreneurs” drawn from the ranks of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.

Marty alleges that this network conducted assassinations of political opponents and even executed civilians and sold their kidneys to organ traffickers.

Thaci has denied the allegations and denounced Marty. At the same time, he has expressed support for an investigation. Albania has also said it would support a probe, either by EULEX or the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, in The Hague.

Still, EULEX officials say they need to examine Marty’s evidence to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted.

“Marty has not provided us with any evidence despite us asking him for it,” Limdal said.

In an exclusive interview with CIR and Balkan Insight, Marty said he would not hand over any sensitive information such as witness identities and testimony unless there are “absolute guarantees” that the information will be tightly protected.

Marty cited failures by both UNMIK and EULEX in developing tools to run sensitive investigations such as a witness relocation program and a system to protect confidential information like foreign intelligence reports.

“Everyone knows that UNMIK had great difficulties in its work and that EULEX - and it is senior officials and judges in EULEX who tell me this - has major problems with interpreters, with local collaborators, with searching the information system in a secure way,” he said. “It is extremely difficult to keep records strictly confidential,” he added.

“If, as a witness, you do not have complete assurance that your statements will be kept confidential, and that as a witness you are truly protected, clearly you won’t talk to these institutions,” he continued.

Marty likened the challenge of investigating organized crime in Kosovo to combating the Sicilian mafia 20 years ago.

“I think that the police or judicial authorities of Kosovo should draw inspiration from methods used by the Italian police,” he said, “for example, by working with high-level informants, that is, people who admit their crimes and help bring down the whole network.”

But Marty said there has not been the will in Kosovo to develop informants to target high-level suspects. As an example, he cited the case of Nazim Bllaca, a 37-year-old Kosovo Albanian who claimed he had been part of a network run by former top KLA officials that killed, tortured and blackmailed political adversaries in Kosovo after the war. Bllaca said he had killed one person and took part in the torture of 16 others.

EULEX only placed Bllaca under protection and house arrest a week after he went public with the allegations in November 2009.

Marty said Bllaca’s experience did not bode well for other insiders who are considering cooperating with the authorities.

“I think that is a troubling indication of the state of the justice system in this country [Kosovo],” he said.

Human rights groups say witness protection has improved under EULEX but they still question whether the mission could safely undertake an ambitious investigation targeting senior government officials. Kosovo is the only country in the region that does not have a witness protection law in place, according to the Council of Europe.

Last week the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch called on EULEX to appoint a special prosecutor based outside the region to investigate Marty’s allegations.

“The EU mission in Kosovo will face great obstacles to conducting a credible investigation into these serious allegations,” said Lotte Leicht, European Union director at Human Rights Watch. “It is crucial to have an independent senior prosecutor, an effective witness protection program - including the ability to relocate witnesses outside the Balkans - and the security required for such a delicate investigation.”

In an interview last month, the ICTY former chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, also questioned whether EULEX had the resources and political support to handle the case, citing the Tribunal’s own experience with intimidation of its witnesses in Kosovo.

“I fear that EULEX will not be able to do this investigation because you can imagine the obstacles they would face with personnel based in Kosovo,” she said.

 

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