The State Department report: Violence against minorities and journalists, numerous unresolved Kosovo Serb property restitution cases

Foto: Human rights in Kosovo

In its report on human rights practices in Kosovo in 2020, the US Department of State revealed pressure on media, violence and harassment of journalists, failure to carry out the Constitutional Court’s decision to return a land parcel to the Visoki Decani monastery, corruption and impunity of top officials, public opposition to the work of the Special Court by leading politicians and civil society leaders in Pristina. The report also highlighted attacks on ethnic minorities or other marginalized communities, attacks on returnees and their property, harassment of Serb KSF members, employment discrimination, and poor translation into Serbian.

Lack of implementation of court decisions on the ownership of the property of minorities and the land of the Visoki Decani monastery

“The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary did not always provide due process. According to the European Commission, NGOs, and the Ombudsperson Institution, the administration of justice was slow and lacked the means to ensure judicial officials’ accountability,” the report reads.

The Department of State underlined that judicial structures were subject to political interference, disputed appointments, and unclear mandates.

On the other hand, the report highlighted that judicial efficiency in resolving pending cases improved markedly. The backlog in basic courts has been reduced by 85 percent since 2016.

The report also addressed the fact that authorities sometimes failed to carry out court orders, including from the Constitutional Court, particularly when “rulings favored minorities.”

As one such example, they cited the failure to return a land parcel to the Visoki Decani monastery.

“Central and local authorities in Decan/Decani continued to refuse to implement the 2016 decision of the Constitutional Court confirming the Serbian Orthodox Church’s ownership of more than 24 hectares of land adjacent to the Visoki Decani Monastery. None of the officials failing to carry out the court order have been sanctioned.”

The report recalled numerous unresolved Kosovo Serbs property restitutions cases.

“A complex mix of laws, regulations, administrative instructions, and court practices, as well as the illegal reoccupation of properties and multiple claims for the same property, continued to hamper resolution of property restitution cases arising from the war and its aftermath.”

More than 96 percent of these claims were filed by ethnic Serbs, the report adds, noting that by law the Kosovo Property Comparison and Verification Agency (KPCVA) has authority to adjudicate claims regarding the extent, value, and ownership of land parcels and to resolve discrepancies between cadastral documents.

“The absence of cadastral records, which Serbia removed from Kosovo in 1999, however, prevented the KPCVA from fully fulfilling its mandate. Claimants have the right to appeal decisions in the courts.”

The report added that this agency had difficulty enforcing the eviction of illegal occupants and, in general, failed to remove illegal structures built on land after claimants had their rights confirmed.

Reusurpation of property continued to be an issue, although the numbers have reportedly declined.

The Department of State report recalled the allegations presented by CSOs that Kosovo is lacking an effective system that would allow displaced Kosovo Serbs living outside the country to file property claims and receive notification of property claim decisions.

As of October the KPCVA had 61 evictions pending, 23 of which were in the Mitrovica region, primarily involving property owned by Kosovo Albanians.

Reusurpation of property continued to be an issue, although the numbers have reportedly declined – the report underlined, recalling that on September 4th, the then Prime Minister Hoti and Serbian President Vucic signed agreements which included pledges to continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.

Freedom of movement, documents issued by Serbia and the bridge on the Ibar

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, the report states.

On the other hand, the Department of State highlighted the government did not consider Serbia-issued personal documents bearing Kosovo town names to be valid travel documents.

“This made it difficult for many members of the Kosovo-Serb community to travel freely to and from the country, unless using the two border crossings with Serbia located in Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities in the north.”

Kosovo Serb representatives claimed some challenges remained, such as access to civil documents for Serbian nationals married to Kosovo-Serb citizens.

The report further stated that improvements at the civil registry in 2018 and 2019 were observed.

The access of Kosovo Serb to identity documents was greatly expanded, and the number of Kosovo Serbs with these documents increased significantly during the year.

The bridge on the Ibar connecting Mitrovica North and South remained closed for vehicular traffic, but open to pedestrians, the report recalls, adding that KFOR and police maintained permanent security at the location, while other bridges connecting the two cities were fully open.

On the internally displaced persons and returns 

UNHCR estimated more than 90,000 individuals had displacement-related needs due to the 1999 Kosovo conflict, including 65,000 in Serbia,  16,406 in Kosovo, 7,500 in “third countries,” 729 in Montenegro, and 394 in North Macedonia.

The Ministry for Communities and Return does not collect, process, or manage data on the displaced population and voluntary returnees

The Department of States report adds that according to the Communities and Return Ministry, obstacles to return included security incidents, insufficient protection of property rights, failure of courts to resolve property disputes, disobedience to court decisions, lack of access to public services, issues with language rights implementation, limited economic prospects, and societal discrimination.

The report cited the case from January 2020 as one such example, when Kosovo Albanians in Gjakove/Djakovica, including persons whose family members remain missing, protested the planned pilgrimage of displaced Serbs to the town’s Serbian Orthodox church. The pilgrims’ association said it cancelled the visit due to security reasons.

The Kosovo government, the report reads, promoted the safe and voluntary return of internally displaced persons (IDPs), through the Communities and Returns Ministry, via policies and protections in line with EU policies and cooperated with domestic and international organizations to ensure IDPs had access to their property and tools for their sustainable return.

“As of December the Ministry of Communities and Return reported that 273 individuals–including 133 Serbs, 42 Gorani, 36 Roma, 33 Balkan Egyptians, 23 Ashkali, and five Albanians–had returned to their place of origin in the country.”

As of June, 408 IDPs, mostly Kosovo Serbs, were living in collective shelters across the country.

The State of Department recalled the construction of social housing apartments for 255 IDPs and refugees residing in five collective shelters, noting that the municipalities of Leposavic and Zvecan allocated land for construction of social housing for the remaining residents of 10 collective shelters, with funding expected from the EU and the Ministry for Communities and Return.

By September, under an EU-funded return and reintegration program and in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, the Communities and Return Ministry successfully constructed and conducted technical acceptance of 53 houses for displaced persons and returnees, with 38 additional houses under construction. In addition, 65 selected beneficiaries of newly constructed houses received furniture and household appliances.
Attacks against members of ethnic minorities

Societal abuses of Kosovo Serb and other ethnic minority communities continued, all of whom were also exposed to societal and employment discrimination, the report underlined.

The Kosovo-Serb community, its representatives, civil society, and the international community expressed concern over incidents involving thefts, break-ins, verbal harassment, and damage to the property of Kosovo-Serbs, particularly returnees in rural areas.

“NGO AKTIV reported more than 20 incidents between March and June targeting Kosovo-Serbs, including arson, physical attacks, and robberies.”

Between January and October, the Communities and Return Ministry received complaints of 49 security incidents affecting Kosovo Serbs and returnees.

As of July UNHCR noted 45 incidents primarily affecting returnees and their property, mainly in the Peje/Pec region. UNHCR said the targets of the incidents were believed to be Kosovo Serbs, except for one case involving a Kosovo-Ashkali returnee.

Police maintained a presence in areas with ethnic minorities and returnees to prevent crime, build the confidence of returnees, and to protect returnees’ property.

The pre-election campaign was marked by intimidation within Kosovo-Serb communities

The report states that the Serbian government continued to operate “illegal parallel government structures” in Kosovo Serb majority municipalities and in areas primarily inhabited by the Kosovo-Gorani community.

“These structures were often used by the Serbian government to influence and manipulate Kosovo-Serb and Kosovo-Gorani communities and their political representatives.”

Commenting on the early parliamentary elections held in October 2019, the report said that the campaign was marked by a pattern of intimidation within Kosovo-Serb communities.

Some Kosovo Serbs reported being pressured not to support parties other than Srpska List, a party closely aligned with the Serbian government

On the other hand, the report also reveals that opposition and independent candidates from Serb areas reported pressure on their candidates to withdraw from the elections and on voters to support Srpska List.

Party affiliation often played a role in access to government services and social and employment opportunities

Harassment of Kosovo Serb members of the KSF by other ethnic Serbs

Harassment of Kosovo Serb members of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) by other ethnic Serbs was commonplace, although usually the incidents were difficult to trace, the State of Department report states.

Victims in most cases did not report the incidents to police for “fear of escalation and retaliation.”

They also cited concrete cases of harassment.

“In June a local court ordered the 30-day detention of a Kosovo Serb for harassing a Kosovo-Serb KSF member on social media. According to the prosecution, the victim received threatening messages after the suspect posted a photo of the victim in uniform alongside Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister and KLA commander. The suspect removed the post, but the victim continued to receive threatening messages.”

Kosovo Serb KSF members were also routinely detained by Serbian authorities at Kosovo-Serbia border crossings, they add.

The Ministry of Defense and KSF leadership took some steps to protect Kosovo-Serb members. These steps included better documentation of incidents, routine welfare checks by commanders, and attempts at improving the response of police and the Kosovo Intelligence Agency.

Access to justice for Serbs improved due to integration of the judiciary system, its flaws include lack of funding and backlog of cases

According to the report, access to justice for Kosovo Serbs improved due to the 2017 integration of the judiciary system in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities and the integration of Kosovo Serb judges and staff in other basic courts in the country.

The judiciary suffered from a lack of funding and support for minorities, the report emphasized while also listing its other flaws.

“Poor or delayed translation in court proceedings, a backlog of cases in the north, nonexecution of court decisions, limited numbers of minority staff, and inconsistency between Albanian and Serbian translations of legislation continued to hinder the delivery of justice for Kosovo Serbs and other minority communities.”

Failure to consistently implement language laws

“The Office of the Language Commissioner reported municipal administrations and central government institutions were inconsistent in implementing provisions of national language laws, for example, in providing Serbian translations of government statements, including emergency notices, during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report further reveals.

The Office of the Language Commissioner also reported that failure to consistently implement language laws meant that many citizens were denied equal access to public services, information, employment, justice, and other rights.

Lack of translation or poor translation was also reported as a problem with regards to numerous laws, signs within public institutions, and communication during court proceedings.

To address the problem of inconsistently translated legislation, the government passed a concept note sponsored by the country’s language commissioner in May 2019 requiring the establishment of a governmental translation unit. As of November, the unit had not been established.

Courts regularly failed to provide adequate translation and interpretation services to minority defendants and witnesses and did not provide adequate translation of statute and court documents as required by law.

NGO AKTIV reported that courts sent their decisions, including decisions on detention and verdicts, in the Albanian language to members of the Kosovo-Serb and other minority communities. This organization noted such practices inhibited access to legal remedies for members of minority communities.

The Hague-based SPO criticized for filing indictments

The report also addressed the work of the Specialist Chambers in 2020.

It recalled that back in June 2020 the SPO announced it had filed indictments against Thaci and Assembly Speaker Kadri Veseli, confirming them in November of the same year. The indictment against Jakup Krasniqi and Rexhep Selimi was also confirmed.

“Leading politicians and civil society leaders, particularly veterans’ organizations, publicly denounced the SPO and the KSC and worked to undermine public support for the work of the SPO and the KSC. These efforts included public protests, a petition drive to abrogate the court, and a legislative initiative proposed by former president Thaci that could have undermined the KSC’s mandate.”

War crimes before the courts in Kosovo

In addition, the report addressed war crimes cases initiated in Kosovo.

As of September the Special Prosecutor of the Republic of Kosovo (SPRK) had 101 war crime cases under formal investigation. During the year, the SPRK issued one ruling for initiation of an investigation.

„Drenica“ case

The report also lists two of the cases under SPRK investigation, referred to as the “Drenica” war crimes cases, which involved 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members suspected of war crimes against civilians.

The charges include torture, mistreatment of prisoners, and murder, all allegedly committed in a KLA detention center in the village of Likoc/Likovac in the Drenica region in 1998.

The cases initially resulted in 11 convictions in 2015. Six of those convicted avoided serving jail time until July 2019, when the court remanded them to prison.

Another war crimes case known as the “Drenica I” case was sent for retrial in 2017, but the initial hearing in December 2019 did not take place because the government did not produce its protected witness.

The hearing was rescheduled for December 2020, a full year after the initial hearing was cancelled, and as of the end of the year had not been held.

The cases of Darko Tasic and Milorad Zajic

In June the Prizren basic court sentenced Darko Tasic, a displaced Serbian, to 22 years in prison for war crimes committed against ethnic Albanians in 1999 in the village of Mala Krusa in Prizren municipality.

He was also accused of participating in confiscation, robbery, desecration of human remains, and illegal and deliberate destruction of property.

The Department of State referred to the NGO Humanitarian Law Center allegations that the verdict exceeded legal maximums. In December the appeals court lowered his sentence to 11 years, within the legal maximum.

Unlike Tasic, Milorad Zajic was acquitted by the basic court in Peje/Pec in March 2019 of killing two persons and expelling ethnic Albanians from a village during the Kosovo war in 1998 as a member of an armed group.

In October of 2019, the appeals court upheld the acquittal, citing trial witnesses’ “contradictory” testimonies as the reason for Zajic’s acquittal.

The report states that in June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that verdicts acquitting Milorad Zajic were incorrect, but the Supreme Court was unable to order a retrial, as it cannot overturn a final decision to the detriment of the defendant.

Todosijevic case

The freedom of speech section of the report highlighted the case of the former minister of local government administration Ivan Teodosijevic from 2019. Todosijevic was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for denying a wartime massacre of ethnic Albanians in 1999.

“The court ruled Todosijevic’s remarks incited hatred and intolerance, while his defense argued there was no legal basis for such decision. As of October his appeal was pending.”

Corruption and lack of transparency in the government, the „Rikalo“ case

In addition to war crimes cases, the report deals with the prosecution of politicians accused of corruption and abuse of office.

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials but the government did not implement the law effectively

 “Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. A lack of effective judicial oversight and general weakness in the rule of law contributed to the problem. Corruption cases were routinely subject to repeated appeal, and the judicial system often allowed statutes of limitation to expire without trying cases.”

The SPRK filed five corruption related indictments in the reporting period. A small proportion of corruption cases that were investigated and charged led to convictions.

NGOs and international organizations alleged numerous failures by the judicial system to prosecute corruption, noting that very few cases brought against senior officials resulted in indictments.

In September a trial continued of former minister of agriculture Nenad Rikalo and seven other officials from the Ministry of Agriculture charged in December 2019 with abuse of power. The court’s decision was pending as of November.

1,640 missing persons, 3 missing-persons cases resolved in 2020

As of September the government’s Missing Persons Commission listed as missing 1,640 persons who disappeared during the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo.

By law the government’s missing-persons database does not include the ethnicity of missing persons unless voluntarily reported by their family.

The commission suggested approximately 70 percent were ethnic Albanians and 30 percent were Serbs, Roma, Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, Bosniaks, Goranis, Montenegrins, and others.

During the year the commission resolved three missing-persons cases pertaining to the Albanian community and handed over the remains of the three persons to their families, the report states.

In November satellite images available to the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed human remains at the Kizevak mine in Serbia. Forensic teams from Kosovo, Serbia, and the international community began exhumations.

Freedom of press and media

The part of the report related to the freedom of media states that independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, “generally without restriction.”

Nevertheless, reports persisted that government officials, some political parties, businesses connected to the government, religious groups, and disgruntled individuals pressured media owners, individual editors, and reporters not to publish certain stories or materials.

“As of September the Association of Journalists of Kosovo and media outlets reported 18 instances of government officials, business interests, community groups, or religious groups violating press freedom by physically assaulting or verbally threatening journalists.”

The report also underlined that financing problems jeopardize media independence.

“Journalists encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions, notwithstanding laws providing access to public documents, due to delays in adopting implementing regulations.”

The report recalled the attack on a Kosovo-Albanian journalist and his crew while they were reporting on the COVID-19 situation in northern Kosovo and the arrest of KoSSev editor in chief Tatjana Lazarevic while traveling to a health center to investigate complaints she received about its readiness for COVID-19.

“Despite presenting her press credentials, Lazarevic was detained for at least an hour and a half and held without charge. Law enforcement authorities maintained she was picked up for breaking curfew, although the government had exempted journalists from movement restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Lazarevic said the true reason for her arrest was to intimidate her from continuing her reporting.”

The report also cites a second attack on the property of investigative journalist Shkumbin Kajtazi – whose car was shot at on October 18th.

Police have not publicly identified suspects or filed charges in either case.

The State Department report also highlighted the pressures faced by journalists from media owners and managers when it comes to publishing or broadcasting stories critical of the government, political parties, or particular officials.

“The Ombudsperson Institution investigated 20 complaints of violations of the right of access to public documents, seven of which were filed by civil society organizations and 13 by individual citizens.”

Domestic violence cases on the rise, over 800 sexual violence victims receive pensions

The Prosecution Victim Assistance Office reported an increased number of domestic violence cases during the year, from 946 cases in 2019 to 1,145 as of October.

“Sexual violence and rape occurring either within or outside the family or domestic unit, were rarely reported by victims, frequently due to social stigma or lack of trust in authorities.”

They recalled that a commission to recognize and compensate survivors of wartime sexual violence was established.

“The commission has granted pensions to more than 800 women since 2018. The SPRK designated one prosecutor for cases of wartime sexual violence. Police maintained a unit for war crimes cases, including cases of wartime sexual violence.”

Mistreatment of prisoner complaints and complaints against police

As of October the Ombudsperson Institution reported receiving 21 registered complaints, seven of which met their admissibility criteria, of mistreatment of prisoners: six complaints against police and one against the correctional service. The police inspectorate investigated three of the cases, while the Ombudsperson Institution reviewed the remaining cases, the report adds.

The police inspectorate is responsible for reviewing complaints about police behavior. As of August it had investigated 360 police officers in connection with 935 citizen complaints regarding police conduct.

According to the report, the inspectorate found disciplinary violations in 545 of these complaints and forwarded them to the police’s Professional Standards Unit. During the year the inspectorate investigated 23 criminal cases from 2019 and filed 29 criminal charges for disciplinary violations.

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