By: Jelena L. Petkovic
The murdered and kidnapped journalists in Kosovo provided information to the public contrary to what the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) wanted. If the journalists did not abandon stories, then kidnappings, beatings and murders of the journalists and/or their family members would follow, says Captain Stu Kellock, former chief of UNMIK’s Regional Serious Crime Unit in Prishtina, in an exclusive interview with the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS).
Kellock is one of the most most decorated Canadian police officers, with more than 36 years of experience in the Toronto Police Service and the Canadian Armed Forces. He was the first foreign police officer to be invited to assist the Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Divisions of the New York City Police Department after the 9/11 attacks. He was the chief of UNMIK’s Regional Serious Crime Unit in Prishtina between September 2000 and June 2001.
Today he serves with the military police as an advisor to National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, as a Professor for the National Security Program at Durham College, a consultant on security matters and as a Director of the Royal Canadian Military Institute.
„I arrived in Kosovo at the beginning of September 2000 as an investigator and later took command of the Serious Crimes Unit. We worked with the Murder Squad, but had no jurisdiction on homicides that occurred prior to my arrival. We worked on cases of kidnapping and missing persons with the missing persons unit. That time was extremely difficult, because much of the infrastructure of the legal system was destroyed in the conflict.
There was general mistrust among the parties and the United Nations (UN) encountered the kind of mistrust and hatred it had never faced before due to the fact that we had primacy for the first time in the history of the United Nations. Witnesses to crimes were afraid to report incidents due to threats and intimidation. Despite numerous demands for a witness protection program and weapons amnesty, we were refused by the UN authorities“.
Some Reports on Journalists’ Murders Were Removed
What did your Unit do to shed light on the murders of journalists and media professionals and what were the results?
These journalists provided information to the public that was contrary to the messages sent by the PDK. Threats and intimidation were the first steps. If the journalists did not give up, then kidnappings, beatings and murder of them and/or their family members followed.
An investigation into the disappearance of colleague Marjan Melonashi was officially opened five years after the event. This is confirmed by the crime investigation unit files.
I cannot say with absolute certainty why his disappearance was not investigated, but I can tell you that at the time when I arrived (September 2000), there was confusion in UNMIK. A hastily designed plan for police oversight in Kosovo was created without providing infrastructure, logistical, administrative and judicial oversight.
The first thing I created when I took over as Unit Chief was a case tracking system. Prior to that, all reports were submitted to whomever was on duty at the time, without any organized methodology of monitoring or providing necessary resources to investigate serious crimes. Reports had to be translated. Police officers from around the world had innumerable ways of writing reports and a wide range of investigative talents, qualifications and experiences. We know there were also PDK sympathizers working as language assistants or even in the KPS (Kosovo Police Service), who may even have removed reports if they got the opportunity to do so.
In the investigation into the murder of journalist Shefki Popova, UNMIK police took documents from his house, the whereabouts of which are unknown.
As I said, recording, storing and documenting evidence was ad hoc and often depended on the professionalism of the investigators and leadership. Also, evidence was generally retained by the investigator with no central repository for continuity and control.
Did you notice that evidence disappeared during investigations or that the investigations were not conducted conscientiously?
Perhaps at the beginning of my tour, but I made a great effort to bring the best, qualified investigators into my Unit. I accepted nothing less than one hundred percent professionalism and objectivity. I dismissed several people for not being so. I also led investigations against UN employees when necessary and sent reports to the Chain of Command. Overall, my investigators worked on their assigned cases committedly, professionally and objectively and saw them through to the end whenever possible. We obviously had a challenging work environment with a lack of resources and manpower. We tried very hard to do everything we could, especially to comfort and support victims, witnesses and their families.
Kellock: Local Judges and Prosecutors Helped the Accused
The “Kosovo-Albanian victors” were rewriting history. The “liberation” of the Albanians from the Serbs created the illusion that the UN was “in the pocket” of former KLA members. That affected negatively any cooperation with the UN civil police which actually had executive powers for the first time in history. We could investigate, arrest and detain individuals who violated various regulations, as well as provide aid in the prosecution of offenders.
Many cases against Kosovo Albanians that reached the local judges and prosecutors were not proceeded, because they supported the accused and the charges were dropped. That additionally increased mistrust in the system and in our ability to objectively investigate crimes. Even according to my objective analysis of criminal offenses committed by both Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, things were obviously set up in favour of the Kosovo Albanians. I believed that we would primarily be investigating serious crimes committed by Serbs, and the international media incited that assumption. My assumption was proved to be false.
Intelligence Services Interfered with Investigations into Journalists’ Murders
In its investigation, the UNS obtained information that the interests of intelligence services were involved in the murder of journalist Xhemail Mustafa, as well as that this might be one of the reasons why the killer’s identity is unknown. Do your findings confirm our suspicions?
I believe they know who the suspects in his death are. Both PDK and LDK had people cooperating with various intelligence agencies to opposite ends, and that made work very difficult for us. External actors from the US, UK, France and other states did not respect the primacy of UNMIK police in criminal investigations after the cessation of NATO’s action in the region. I had information that in practically every case someone was working for someone else to achieve their goals.
During investigations, did you face any pressure or suggestion that certain investigations should not be conducted, or should be put aside?
In every case that had a political background, I was under pressure from my superiors to be careful (which meant that they would have to approve everything before I took further steps), or I received clear direction to stop any further work. That is why we took former KLA commander Sabit Geci directly to the international court, so that they would deal with the charges against him and two others. After the convictions of Geci and his associates, my commander stated: “We were not sure if we were going to allow you to keep working on that,” but they were ultimately happy with the outcome as it gave significant credibility to the UN as our unit in particular.
I very much understood that all of these investigations had an impact on the credibility of the UN. We were expected to follow their orders, whatever they may be. But, we were there to follow the law, I could not compromise my professionalism and integrity, and that often got me into conflict with politicos who had other ideas – including Bernard Kouchner, whom I had escorted from crime scenes that he was trying to exploit.
The UN Prevented Me from Investigating Thaci; Most of the Crimes During My Tenure Were Committed by Albanians
During my tenure, as an investigator and then as the chief of the Unit, I found that most of the crimes we were assigned or which we assumed were in fact committed by Kosovo Albanians. The example illustrating that was the arrest of Sabit Geci and his group of criminals. When I wanted to investigate Hashim Thaci, I was prevented from doing so by the UN due to the fact that he was destined by the US to ultimately be the head of the country. That is why Sabit Geci was taken immediately to the international prosecutors, so that they would be seized with the case against him and two of his colleagues. He was convicted of organized crime and terrorism before the international court. I think that this had a huge influence on establishing the credibility of the UN Police and the international court. Witnesses were finally starting to come forward and give evidence on crimes to the courts, Kellock says about the atmosphere he was working in.
Aleksandar Simovic was kidnapped in Prishtina, and then murdered. Momir Stokuca was killed in his apartment in Prishtina. These crimes occurred after the arrival of NATO in Kosovo. Did you know who was “managing” Prishtina? Was it the international forces that were mandated or the local KLA leaders?
Interesting question. When I arrived, NATO still had the security mandate for Kosovo. The military had primacy, as we say, in the conduct of all operations. The UN had an interim administration mandate and attempted to carry out various authorities. Neither the KLA nor PDK had any legal authority. Nevertheless, they had influence. KFOR had no criminal investigation capacity or the mandate to do so. That is why there is so much lacking in the way of evidence based investigations prior to the creation of UNMIK Police.
Were the local leaders ever called in for questioning? Did they ever talk about those crimes?
Political and intelligence representatives talked with them in order to gain information on the direction in which the mission could proceed.
Removal of Evidence of the Murders and Kidnappings of Journalists
How do you comment on the disappearance of documents on the murder of Momir Stokuca from the UNMIK archive? How do you comment on the fact that an investigation into the case was never opened?
We know that there were KPS (Kosovo Protection Force) members who were sympathetic to the PDK and former members of the KLA. If they were in a position to do so, of course they did everything to assist their political and former military masters, including intimidation of witnesses and removal of evidence. That is why we used multiple translators to get exact statements from victims and witnesses.
Ljubomir Knezevic disappeared in Vucitrn. The families of the kidnapped Serbs link some of the disappearances to the story of organ trafficking. What is certain is that some witnesses in Vucitrn identified Gani Ymeri as a kidnapper, who was a member of the Kosovo Protection Force, and the investigation was halted. Both the investigating judge and the prosecutor were replaced. Were there any other cases of discrediting international prosecutors and judges due to pressure from parallel power centers?
Although I am not familiar with this particular case, this was in line with the absolute control PDK and Hashim Thaci had over everything that was going on in Kosovo. He operated with impunity and with the authority of the UK, USA and CIA. At the 1999 talks in Rambouillet, Madeleine Albright decided that Thaci was eventually going to be the head of state. I can also confirm the frustration that some international prosecutors had with the political pressure on them. I know it forced one British prosecutor to actually leave the mission.
Did Kosovo and international centers of political power interfere with investigations into the murders and kidnappings of journalists and other civilians?
Absolutely, especially British, American and French intelligence services, and not just with journalists. Any academic, journalist or politician was subject to their influence, subtle or otherwise.
Kouchner Knew All About the Murders of Journalists and Abused His Position
When it comes to your work in Prishtina, two stories are repeated. Number one: that your superiors were unhappy about the arrest of Sabit Geci, one of the KLA leaders, and that after the arrest secret meetings were organized within UNMIK, where your bosses reconsidered the work of your unit. The other story is that allegedly (after Geci’s arrest) then Head of UNMIK Bernard Kouchner ordered that his explicit permission be requested in order to carry out searches of property owned by the leading families in Kosovo. What is true?
Both stories are true. Kouchner did order this and the only way to keep Geci, Ilir Tahiri and Xheladin Geci in custody was to take them before the international court. I am sure that, had we not taken them before this court, they would have been released and likely would have disappeared from the country, as was the case with the individual who had planted an explosive under a Niš Ekspres bus (in Livadice in 2001, journalist’s note). It was said that Ilir Tahiri and the younger Geci were working for French intelligence. That is why they managed to escape from Mitrovica prison soon after being incarcerated after sentencing. It was incredibly frustrating.
You said that reports on everything that happened in the field were submitted to Kouchner, i.e. that by chain of command he was aware of everything that happened: disappearances, murders, other crimes against civilians… He claims that he did not know. He reacted very strongly when asked about Swiss Senator Dick Marty’s report on organ trafficking in Kosovo. How do you comment on that?
I officially state that the special representative of the UN secretary general was completely familiar with all criminal activities in Kosovo. I would take it a step further and state that he actually benefitted in some ways from his position.
Can one conclude that within UNMIK there was a culture of covering up crimes?
Many countries had a vested interest in Kosovo, specifically the US. The construction of Camp Bondsteel through a signed agreement with Hashim Thaci, who was not the president at the time, indicated to me that he would undoubtedly become one. The US Administraton under the Clinton’s and Albright facilitated his presidency.
The period during which you worked in Kosovo also coincides with the time frame of Dick Marty’s report and the mandate of the Specialist Chambers in The Hague. Is there any hope that this court will bring justice to our colleagues, as well as to the other civilians killed and kidnapped in Kosovo?
It has to. The court is the only hope for victims on all sides to get justice for what happened in Kosovo. As for the murder, intimidation and disappearance of journalists prior to my arrival in Kosovo, I can only say: any person, including journalists, politicians, educators or anyone who spoke out against the PDK was in extreme danger of their thugs, mostly associated with the Kosovo Protection Force. They operated with impunity under the authority of those who would later lead the country, backed by the US government. That was intimidation to the maximum – even I was subtly threatened after we arrested the Geci clan.
The Murder of Journalist Kerem Lawton
You also investigated the case of the murder of AP journalist Kerem Lawton, who was killed during a mortar attack near the border with Macedonia. The Albanian side blamed the Macedonians for the attack, while the Macedonians claimed that there was not even the slightest possibility that their soldiers had fired the shells. Still, it is obvious that there were armed forces that were not supposed to be there?
Very interesting case. Upon arriving at the morgue, I was met by a number of US military, police officers and officers in civilian clothes. The Americans demanded that an autopsy be carried out immediately so that the cause of death and type of weaponry used might be determined. There were several puncture wounds on Mr. Lawton’s body which appeared to be the consequence of an explosion and the entry of shrapnel to the body and head. The US representatives in attendance demanded an autopsy in order that they would retrieve and identify the origin of the weapons used, while UK representatives of the news agency demanded that the body be returned intact immediately to the UK. It was one of the most stressful days in Kosovo, and there were many such days.
The murder of Kerem Lawton created tension between Great Britain, whose citizen he was, and the United States. Was this a matter of hiding the details of the murder?
The thought was that Mr. Lawton was killed by ordnance fired from Macedonia, from the Tetovo or Kumanovo areas. The ordnance was believed to be manufactured in the US and/or a mortar type. When I brought the international investigating judge to the morgue, a daylong session of investigation and presentation of both countries’ opinions ensued. In the end, after much international consultation, the judge ruled that the body did not have to undergo an autopsy and that it could be returned to the UK immediately. The coroner was not equipped to conduct an autopsy according to European or North American standards. After that decision, I helped place the body in a body bag and then in a metal container that was welded shut, and then I escorted the remains to the Prishtina airport, where a UK aircraft was waiting with its engines on, to depart before an upcoming heavy storm. The Italian soldiers were running towards us and I was very concerned for everyone’s safety. However, in a surprising act of respect, they formed two lines and presented arms in a moving tribute to a correspondent who died in the line of duty. Everyone boarded the aircraft leaving cars with their engines running at the airport, and his girlfriend and I left standing on the runway in the wicked storm that had now decended upon us.
Did you and his family ever learn how he was killed and who the killer is?
Even after attempts at finding out through the media, I heard nothing. The UK media representative there to retrieve Kerem Lawton had actually worked in Canada at Global News and I had hoped that I might learn something about this case someday.
What is the likelihood of solving the murders of journalists and media professionals in Kosovo after all this time?
I am afraid that, as long as Thaci is in the president’s seat, it is highly unlikely that any objective investigations will shed light on the fate of the missing and murdered.
It will be interesting to see if Kosovo will enter NATO and at what cost. Another interesting investigation was the massacre in Drenice – Geci’s home village… Why were our investigators attacked while trying to determine who committed the killings? Probably because the Serbs were the ones really responsible.
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