Is New Probe Into Organ-Trafficking Claims Justified?

By IWPR staff

Allegations that Kosovo Albanian militants killed captives and sold their organs abroad have prompted calls for the claims to be investigated further, but IWPR enquiries suggest there is insufficient new evidence on which a new case could be based.

Serbia has raised the temperature by opening an investigation, after the account of organ trafficking and murder appeared in Carla Del Ponte’s memoirs, “The Hunt: War Criminals and Me”, published in April.

American journalist Chuck Sudetic, who co-authored the book with Del Ponte, told IWPR a new and “credible” investigation should be carried out. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has urged the authorities in Kosovo – which declared independence in February – to investigate the claims.

But as the book points out, when the Hague court and the United Nations mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, conducted preliminary investigations, including at the scene of the alleged crimes, they failed to turn up enough evidence to allow them to proceed.

How feasible, then, is it that the case could be revived at this stage, nearly a decade after the Kosovo conflict? And do the allegations merit further enquiry, on the basis of what Hague investigators found when they looked into the matter six years ago?

SYSTEMATIC BUTCHERY ALLEGED

As chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, from August 1999 until stepping down in January 2008, Del Ponte oversaw some of the key prosecutions of individuals accused of terrible war crimes in the various Balkan wars.

In her book, she recounts how she came across reports that in the summer of 1999, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, transported between 100 and 300 abducted persons to various locations in northern Albania, where an unspecified number were forcibly subjected to operations to remove kidneys and other organs.

The captives included Serbs, Russians and at least one Albanian.

Prospective victims, it is suggested, were hand-picked from the “younger, fitter captives”, and were then fed well and monitored by doctors until they were brought to the makeshift operating theatre, identified as a yellow-painted house near the town of Burrel.

“Victims deprived of only their first kidney were sewn up and confined again inside the shack [used as a prison] until they were killed for their other vital organs; in this way, the other captives in the shack learned of their approaching fate; and they reportedly pleaded in terror to be killed immediately,” said the book.

The organs were then smuggled out of Albania, by way of the Rinas airport near Tirana, to be used in transplant operations abroad for fee-paying patients.

Del Ponte’s account is based on what she describes as interviews with eyewitnesses, conducted by “a team of credible journalists” and provided to UNMIK officials. One of the journalists’ informants, for example, apparently described delivering an organ shipment to the airport; two women said they helped bury the dead near the outhouse and at a nearby graveyard.

Del Ponte is currently Swiss ambassador to Argentina, and her government has barred her from speaking about the book in public. Her co-author, Sudetic, who reported on the Balkan wars, is able to speak because, as he says, “that ban does not apply” to him. Interviewed by IWPR, he made it clear his remarks in large part reflected Del Ponte’s views.

Apart from the shocking nature of the allegations presented in the book, Sudetic noted that the fact it has so far appeared only in Italian had added to the speculation.

“Many people have commented about ‘La Caccia’ [‘The Hunt’] without ever having read [it]…. Many people have made wild accusations based upon inaccurate press reports,” he said.

To clarify what the book actually says, Sudetic provided IWPR with the English version of chapters referring to the organ-trafficking allegations.

“All La Caccia does is present assertions by reliable journalists, presented to the ICTY through UNMIK, and describe the physical evidence found in Albania that corroborates, to a certain degree, these assertions,” he said.

POLITICAL STORM

The allegations have unleashed a storm among Balkan politicians, and human rights groups and journalists in the region and beyond.

They come at a particularly low moment in relations between Belgrade and Kosovo, after the latter unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia on February 17.

Serbian officials, and their Russian allies too, want a new investigation into the allegations aired in the book.

B92 Radio in Belgrade quoted war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic as saying his office was looking into the fate of Serbs kidnapped in Kosovo, and was asking the prosecution service in Albania to check on “Del Ponte’s claims about the yellow house [site of alleged surgery]…, whether it was there, and what might have been happening inside, but also all the other relevant information related to this case".

The Kosovo government, headed by President Hashim Thachi, the KLA commander-in-chief during the 1998-99 conflict, dismisses the claims out of hand.

Luzim Basha, foreign minister of Albania, where the alleged crimes are said to have take place, said the claims were “absurd” and “not just immoral, but slanderous as well”.

INITIAL INVESTIGATIONS CAME TO NOTHING

“The Hunt” tells how the ICTY took up the allegations in n 2002-03 after obtaining information from UNMIK. One immediate and enduring obstacle was that the journalists, whose identity is not known, refused to reveal their eyewitness sources to either UNMIK or ICTY.

By summer 2002, Del Ponte’s office was, she says, still having “trouble amassing evidence of sufficient quality to submit indictments”.

She noted that one of the issues discussed at the time was whether the ICTY could legally take the matter forward – its temporal jurisdiction ended in June 1999, after NATO troops arrived in Kosovo, and the crimes seem to have occurred after that time.

However, that issue did not prevent the ICTY and UNMIK investigators travelling to Albania in 2003, where they found the house identified as the surgery and what looked like evidence, such as medical items and bloodstains.

These findings combined with the journalists’ reporting were, in Del Ponte’s words, “tantalising”. As she points out, “Stories of prisoners being killed by organ smugglers arise from many conflict areas, but rarely is there hard evidence to lift these accounts out of the realm of urban myth.”

The evidence the team came across was insufficient. There were many gaps – the failure to find graves, to identify blood matter as human, to convince the journalists to reveal their sources or to locate witnesses independently. This was compounded by questions over the ICTY’s mandate given the possible date of the abductions, and the location of the purported crimes in another state, Albania.

“So in the end, the attorneys and investigators on the KLA cases decided that there was insufficient evidence to proceed,” said Del Ponte. “Without the sources or a way to identify and find them, without bodies, and without other evidence linking high-level accused to these acts, all avenues of investigation were barred. It would be up to UNMIK or the local Kosovo and Albanian authorities, perhaps in conjunction with the Serbian law enforcement agencies, to investigate these accounts further and, if necessary, prosecute them.”

Speaking after Del Ponte’s book appeared in print, Hague tribunal representatives insisted the organ-trafficking claims came to nothing because there was insufficient evidence.

As ICTY spokesperson Nerma Jelacic said at a press conference on April 16, “no evidence in support of such allegations was ever brought before the tribunal’s judges”.

At the same press conference, Olga Kavran, spokesperson for the Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, said, “In terms of the allegations of organ harvesting, in 2002-2003, UNMIK informed the OTP of allegations that people had been abducted from Kosovo and taken to Albania where their organs were removed. It is our understanding that the Serbian authorities were also aware of these allegations at the time.”

Kavran noted that at the end of the preliminary investigation conducted by the prosecutor’s office together with UNMIK and the Albanian authorities, ICTY prosecutors “could not substantiate the allegations and had no further basis on which to proceed in relation to our jurisdiction. The matter was left to the competent authorities – UNMIK and the Albanian authorities”.

Florence Hartmann, a former spokesperson for the Hague court, told IWPR that it never launched an official investigation because the results of the preliminary enquiries did not merit this.

She stressed that the preliminary investigation was “carried out properly”, that no administrative obstacles were placed in its way, and that ICTY investigators had the cooperation of the Albanian justice ministry and the local prosecutor in Burrel.

Hartmann says ICTY representatives “never met the sources who had spoken to the reliable journalists. The journalists did not provide their contacts or names to the ICTY after the [Albania] mission because it gave no results”.

She went further in remarks published in the French newspaper Le Temps, saying the organ-trafficking claims were “irresponsible” and “undignified”.

“Mixing up genres, juxtaposing crimes that have gone to trial and these non-verified theories from witnesses [Del Ponte] doesn’t know anything about – even their identity – encourages confusion between rumour and fact, and risks encouraging all kinds of revisionists," she said.

Interviewed by IWPR, Sudetic suggested that after ICTY left the matter, UNMIK and Albania did not do enough to pursue the allegations.

“The ICTY could not investigate due to jurisdictional constraints. The Kosovo authorities, including UNMIK, and the Albanian authorities could have investigated further. Nothing effective was done in five years,” he said.

When IWPR asked UNMIK what it had done on this case, spokesperson Alexander Ivanko said in an email, “As far as I know, there was never enough evidence to start an investigation. What Carla Del Ponte is referring to is mostly hearsay and is not based on any documented evidence and witness testimony.”

TIME FOR A NEW INVESTIGATION?

According to Sudetic, “It is time for a credible investigation to be conducted, one that would draw upon information developed by the Serbian police, the Albanian authorities, and the authorities in Kosovo – with an international component to guarantee that it is conducted in good faith. That’s all La Caccia implies.

“If ‘La Caccia’ succeeds in galvanising opinion and prompting a credible investigation – no matter what the findings – then it will have done a great service.”

At this point, it is unclear how this could happen. ICTY’s completion strategy means it cannot embark on new investigations.

The authorities in Kosovo and Albania – who did not obstruct the initial ICTY investigation – insist the allegations are unfounded.

Shkelzen Maliqi, head of the Institute for Social Studies in Pristina, told IWPR that “those allegations are just allegations, based on pure rumours which probably originate from Serbian propaganda.

“I am not surprised, since in the past we already heard such fantasy stories. But the disturbing thing is that the former chief prosecutor for the ICTY has published such unfounded accusations. This indicates that Del Ponte is artificially trying to spread the guilt for war crimes equally between Serbs and Albanians… Such fabricated allegations risk undermining the credibility of the ICTY.”

In Kosovo, as UNMIK prepares to move out, the European Union will next month deploy an EU Rule of Law Mission, known as EULEX, to provide a continued international presence there. The mission will include a police component, but it is unclear whether its mandate would allow it to prompt the Kosovo authorities to look into the organ-trafficking allegations if it so wished.

SERBIA SEEKS NEW EVIDENCE

Only the authorities in Belgrade believe further investigations into the alleged trafficking of human organs are worth pursuing. But hey will not have easy access to potential evidence or witnesses in Kosovo and Albania to shed new light on this case.

Bruno Vekaric, spokesperson for the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, told IWPR that the authorities opened their investigation as soon as they found out about the case from the book.

“More than ten witnesses who could provide some information have been interviewed since then,” he said.

Vekaric added that during a recent meeting with the tribunal’s new chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, Serbian prosecutors asked for additional explanations and documentation related to the case.

The Belgrade daily Blic reported last week that a representative of Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor recently met Del Ponte in Buenos Aires, and that she agreed to talk to Serbian judges investigating the case, if the Swiss foreign ministry gave its approval.

"All the institutions in the country with jurisdiction to deal with this matter,” Serbian justice minister Dusan Petrovic, quoted by B92, said on April 19. “The War Crimes Prosecution and the Prosecutor above all, are doing everything in their power, are investing all their strength, so that we may have results.”

Petrovic noted that “most of the evidence, primarily material evidence, is in a territory that is not under our country’s control”, but added, “I am completely convinced that it is possible to exert very strong pressure on representatives of the international community, and those who have been authorised in Kosovo by the United Nations, to obtain very valid evidence".

So far, Serbian officials do not appear to have obtained any solid evidence.

"There was some information that approximately 400 people were held in… Burrel in Albania, but we didn’t find any evidence of that,” Gvozden Gagic, adviser to the head of the Serbian Commission for Missing Persons told IWPR.

Serbian officials point out that around 2,000 individuals are still missing and unaccounted for from the period of the Kosovo conflict, and out of that number 550 are Serbs and other non-Albanians.

WHY NOW?

Since Del Ponte says a group of “credible journalists” uncovered the story on alleged organ-trafficking crimes, it is puzzling that there were no media reports about the case when it surfaced.

The lingering question in the minds of many observers is why Del Ponte has chosen to reveal the allegations now, especially if her own office’s initial enquiries failed to substantiate them. Nor is it clear why – given her robust stance in her time as ICTY prosecutor – she did not use her considerable authority to press the Kosovo and Albanian authorities to renew the investigations.

As Hartmann told IWPR, “No one ever reported on these allegations, not even the journalists who were in contact with the sources…. They would have written about the case if they had found something to sustain the allegations of their sources, or if they had found other sources to corroborate such allegations. Nothing else would have prevented them from writing.”

DOUBTS OVER MEDICAL FEASIBILITY

One of the objections to the organ-trafficking story is that such operations require high-tech facilities and large numbers of trained staff to be successful.

This is acknowledged even by those Serbian officials who believe the case holds water.

“Medical experts point out to us that approximately 40 people were needed to perform those kinds of operations in extraordinary medical conditions,” said Vekaric.

Former Serbian defence minister Zoran Stankovic, a forensic and pathology expert who has examined more than 50 corpses exhumed in Kosovo, says he has “never found traces of organ extraction” in any of the bodies he worked on.

“Such operations must be conducted by a team of experts in very sterile conditions and in an operating theatre…. If this indeed happened, then a very professional and trained expert team was involved,” Stankovic told IWPR.

He adds that if such operations had been conducted, there would have been some paper-trail of the transit arrangements and also at the recipient hospital.

“A medical institution receiving human organs for transplantation must note that it has received them. If the organs are transported by a plane or helicopter, the flight has to be announced. Some traces must exist. Human organs are transported in special conditions and in a very limited time,” said Stankovic.

Medical experts in Geneva interviewed by IWPR confirmed these reservations, and expressed doubt that Albania was equipped with such facilities or had personnel trained to perform this task.

But Sudetic is adamant that from a medical point of view, the allegations stand up to scrutiny.

“‘La Caccia’ did not contain all the descriptions of the alleged organ operation that were provided to UNMIK and ICTY by the journalists, who were relying upon sources they had spent several years locating and interviewing. The assertions they made did not describe a crude operation carried out by inexperienced medical personnel,” he said.

“The journalists asked themselves the same questions and approached international experts in organ transplants, as well as scholars who have studied the international organ transplant phenomenon. The story would never have been pursued if these experts did not say that such an operation was feasible.”

The political row unleashed by the allegations raised in Del Ponte’s book is unlikely to subside soon, given the wider confrontation between Serbia and Kosovo. But unless Serbian prosecutors come up with new witnesses or solid evidence, it seems unlikely that the claims of organ trafficking will be taken up by national or international courts.

Nedim Sarac, a Bosnian journalist based in Geneva and Sarajevo, and Aleksandar Roknic, an IWPR-trained journalist in Belgrade, contributed to this report.