Sunday, July 14, 2013

Serbs’ Kidneys Harvested Alive: KLA Atrocities In Kosovo

TV scene of the live removal of a young serb's kidneys.
BRING UP THE BODIES: Kosovo’s leaders have been accused of grotesque war crimes. But can anyone prove it? BY NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: MAY 6, 2013

After the conflict in Kosovo ended, in June, 1999, a tribunal in The Hague set out to punish the perpetrators of atrocities. Louise Arbour, the lead prosecutor, described Kosovo—a former province of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—as “one vast crime scene.”

Her investigators’ primary target was Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb who led Yugoslavia. Milosevic had claimed that Kosovo’s majority group, ethnic Albanians, treated ethnic Serbs like slaves, and armed forces under his control had waged a campaign of mass murder there, slaughtering more than ten thousand Kosovars.

NATO, relying heavily on American forces, launched air strikes to stop Milosevic, and received crucial assistance from the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main rebel force in the region. K.L.A. scouts relayed Serbian tank coördinates to Green Berets, who passed on the information to American fighter jets.

Three months after the air strikes began, Serbia surrendered. Milosevic was eventually arrested and sent to The Hague, where he died in prison, of a heart attack.

In Kosovo, meanwhile, the K.L.A. officially disbanded, but many of its members joined political parties. A party led by Hashim Thaci, the K.L.A.’s political chief, rose to power. In 2008, Thaci became the first Prime Minister of an independent Kosovo. Two years later, Vice-President Joe Biden hailed him as “the George Washington of Kosovo.”

KLA's atrocities in Kosovo during last war.
Today, nearly two thousand people remain missing in Kosovo, a country that José Pablo Baraybar, a Peruvian who headed the U.N.’s Office on Missing Persons and Forensics, described to me as “one of the most exhumed places on earth.”

DNA technology has helped investigators identify hundreds of bodies, many of them buried in mass graves. But, even in an era of sophisticated forensic science, definitive evidence can be elusive: in one case, the Serbs burned hundreds of corpses in a lead smelter.

Dozens of Serbs have been convicted of war crimes since the fighting stopped, but they were not the only ones responsible for violence. In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, rumors circulated that, in the summer of 1999, K.L.A. paramilitaries had trucked prisoners across the border to secret detention camps in Albania, where they were tortured and, sometimes, killed.

But, in public, Kosovars embraced a “silence taboo,” in the words of Vehbi Kajtazi, a journalist in Pristina. The men who led the K.L.A. remained a fearsome presence in the country, posing a threat to anyone who spoke out, and ethnic Serbs were a powerless bloc, falling to less than two per cent of the population. Unlike Argentina, South Africa, and Sierra Leone, Kosovo failed to establish its own truth-and-reconciliation commission.

The task of accounting for the missing was left largely to outsiders. One of them was Michael Montgomery, an American radio journalist who had helped expose the massacre of forty-one Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces in the village of Qyshk, on May 14, 1999.

He began amassing troubling stories involving the K.L.A. Multiple sources told him that, in the days after Milosevic’s defeat, the K.L.A. had shipped accused traitors to camps in Albania. A former K.L.A. member recalled guarding seven prisoners in the back of a van, their mouths taped and their hands cuffed, as they crossed the border.

A K.L.A. driver said that he had been given orders not to hurt anyone; once his captives were in Albania, they were taken to a house where doctors were present. The driver heard that the doctors sampled the prisoners’ blood and assessed their health. Several sources implied that this caretaking had a sinister purpose: the K.L.A. was harvesting the prisoners’ organs and selling them on the black market.

Map of Kosovo and Yugoslavia.
Montgomery was concerned that these stories might be propaganda planted by the Serbian government, so he tracked down additional sources. Three people recalled taking prisoners to a yellow house outside the Albanian town of Burrel. Another K.L.A. driver told Montgomery that there were only two places where he “brought people but never picked anyone up”: the yellow house and a cream-colored farmhouse near the airport in Tirana, Albania’s capital.

The farmhouse, he noted, had a “very strong smell of medicine.” The driver added that he sometimes heard other drivers talking about “organs, kidneys, and trips from the house to the airport.” Since the late nineteen-nineties, Istanbul—a short flight from Tirana—has been a destination for transplant tourism.

In late 2002, a K.L.A. member told Montgomery that the group had made “a fortune” by trafficking body parts, primarily kidneys. C., as Montgomery called the source, claimed that the K.L.A. received about forty-five thousand dollars per body. Most shipments involved body parts from “two or three Serbs,” though C. knew of an instance when the K.L.A. “did five Serbs together.”

In late 2002 and early 2003, Montgomery travelled with a colleague to Albania, carrying a map drawn by his informants. It directed them to the yellow house and to the farmhouse near the airport. But they didn’t knock on the doors.

Montgomery thought that they needed stronger evidence before confronting the occupants. “The only way we felt we could report this was if bodies were recovered and matched with missing people,” he told me.

Montgomery decided to put his investigations aside, but he didn’t let the matter go entirely. He sent a memo to the U.N.’s missing-persons office in Kosovo, asserting that, in 1999 and 2000, between one hundred and three hundred prisoners were taken to Albania, where some were dispatched to a “makeshift clinic” that extracted “body organs from the captives.”

Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
The U.N. forwarded the memo to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or I.C.T.Y. The tribunal, established in The Hague in 1993, was designed to bring a measure of justice to those who had suffered horrors in the Balkans. The Serbs did not see the tribunal as impartial, and they have remained hostile to it.

Tomislav Nikolic, Serbia’s current President, said recently that the tribunal “was founded to try the Serbian people.” In fact, most of the convictions in I.C.T.Y. courtrooms have been of ethnic Serbs, in part because the Milosevic regime made little effort to conceal its crimes. In Qyshk, Serbian militia members responsible for the massacre left behind photographs of themselves posing with machine guns; the images were later used to identify some of the culprits.

The lead prosecutor at the I.C.T.Y. was Carla Del Ponte, an indefatigable fifty-six-year-old lawyer from the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. She had joined the tribunal in September, 1999, and she had tried dozens of Serbs for crimes against humanity. The K.L.A., she suspected, had committed significantly fewer war crimes, but scale is not exculpatory.

Del Ponte received Montgomery’s memo as she was preparing to indict Ramush Haradinaj, a former bouncer who joined the K.L.A., rose to commander, and then went on to become the Prime Minister of U.N.-administered Kosovo.

She intended to charge Haradinaj with “planning, instigating, ordering, committing, or otherwise aiding and abetting” the abuse of dozens of prisoners. The indictment also accused him of participating in “the abduction of persons who were later found murdered.”

Accused war criminal Haradinaj (PM of Ksosovo).
In documents sent to Del Ponte, Montgomery quoted his source C. saying that Haradinaj “must have known” about organ trafficking, in part because his brother Daut was close to someone “heavily involved” in the trade. (In 2002, a U.N. court convicted Daut, a former K.L.A. member, of involvement in the murder of four political rivals.)

Del Ponte was not alone in her dim view of the K.L.A. President Bill Clinton’s Balkan envoy, Robert Gelbard, had called the K.L.A. a “terrorist group,” and the organization had regularly been accused of gangsterism.

In the late nineties, Italian police had arrested an Albanian for trafficking women and marijuana across the Adriatic Sea by speedboat; the suspect confessed to brokering drugs-for-guns deals between the K.L.A. and the Mafia.

An Interpol representative, appearing before Congress in 2000, testified that the K.L.A. had “helped transport two billion dollars’ worth of drugs annually into Western Europe.” After the war, critics have alleged, many former K.L.A. members continued to nurture strong ties with the underworld.

Del Ponte knew that securing a war-crimes conviction against Haradinaj would not be easy. Insurgencies tend to be improvised affairs, without battle orders or formal communiqués. The K.L.A. prized secrecy and stealth.

Looking to buttress the case, Del Ponte authorized Michael Montgomery to escort a U.N. team to the mysterious yellow house. One morning in 2004, under a low, granite sky, Montgomery, Baraybar—the Peruvian U.N. official—and half a dozen U.N. and I.C.T.Y. personnel travelled, in a convoy of S.U.V.s, down a dirt road outside Burrel.

KLA atrocities during last war.
Following protocol, they brought along Arben Dyla, an Albanian prosecutor, who mocked their “silly” expedition. “There are no Serbs here,” he told the group. “But, if anyone did bring Serbs here and killed them, that would have been a good thing.” (Dyla denies making this remark.)

They arrived at the yellow house that Montgomery had seen a year earlier—only now it was white. Baraybar got close enough to determine that, beneath a thin coat of fresh paint, “the thing was yellow.”

The owner reluctantly let them inside. Baraybar, who was trained in forensic science, pulled on a white Tyvek suit and walked around the place. It smelled stale and sour. He sprayed Luminol—a chemical that causes traces of blood to glow—and identified a stain on the living-room floor.

The owner explained to a translator who was part of the U.N. contingent that his wife had given birth at home; later, he said that the blood had come from a slaughtered animal. “Do you slaughter chickens in your living room?” Baraybar asked me. “It was quite bizarre.” Moreover, the stain had a square edge, as if blood had dripped off the corner of a table. “Is that proof of anything?” Baraybar said. “No, it isn’t. But it’s a clue.”

At one point, Baraybar went into the back yard, and noticed a pile of trash inside a thicket of brush. He dug past food scraps and plastic and retrieved gauze, syringes, drip bags, vials, an empty bottle of Tranxene, and an empty foil packet of Buscopan. He called a doctor at the U.N., who told him that Tranxene was an anti-anxiety drug and Buscopan a muscle relaxer and anti-spasmodic; both could be used to sedate patients.

KLA atrocities during last war.
Baraybar asked the owner about the pharmaceuticals. He said that a nurse visited the house “on occasion” and doled out pills and medical supplies. Baraybar found the explanation “incoherent.” He placed the items in Ziploc bags, along with a fragment of cloth that he deemed “consistent with surgical overalls.”

There was a cemetery near the property, and when Baraybar walked over to it locals confronted him and told him to leave. The U.N. investigators decided to return to Pristina. Baraybar shipped the Ziploc bags to The Hague, and Del Ponte’s team inspected the material.

Though suspicious, it wasn’t strong enough to anchor a case, and it couldn’t be connected to Haradinaj. Archivists at the I.C.T.Y. filed the objects away. Eventually, someone threw them out.

Del Ponte pressed ahead with prosecutions, but she discovered that it was extremely difficult to secure witnesses. A Kosovar who had testified in the murder trial of Haradinaj’s brother Daut was gunned down; an internal U.N. document noted that the Kosovar had been expected to deliver “vital” testimony in “other war-crimes cases.”

Another witness told the court that “there were persons . . . whose names don’t even appear on witness lists, because they have been killed.” The I.C.T.Y. had a witness-protection program, but it was largely ineffective. Although public transcripts protected witnesses by using pseudonyms, defendants learned their identities before trials, and, during proceedings, sat only a few feet away from them. “Who were we protected from?” one witness told me. “Everyone in the court knew me.”

In April, 2008, judges in The Hague acquitted Haradinaj, but they noted their “strong impression that the trial was being held in an atmosphere where witnesses felt unsafe.”

(No evidence has come to light connecting Haradinaj to organ trafficking. His lawyer denied that his client had committed or sanctioned any crimes, and said that it was “false and defamatory” to suggest that Haradinaj’s acquittal was “tainted by intimidation.”)

The prosecution of Fatmir Limaj—a former K.L.A. leader and a close confidant of Prime Minister Thaci—had unravelled in similar fashion. In February, 2003, Limaj surrendered at a ski resort in Slovenia, where he was vacationing with Thaci. Limaj was accused of overseeing a detention camp, in Llapushnik, Kosovo, where prisoners were subjected to beatings, starvation, and torture. Two of his deputies were also indicted.

Del Ponte wouldn’t need to prove that Limaj wielded an axe or fired a pistol—only that he knew about atrocities and did not stop them. Her prosecution was guided by the legal theory of “command responsibility,” which dates to the fifteenth century, when Peter von Hagenbach, a governor under the Duke of Burgundy, was tried, convicted, and beheaded for presiding over the brutal occupation of a town in the Upper Rhine.

“Not only was this the first recorded international war-crimes trial; it was the first recorded trial in which a commander was held responsible for crimes by his subordinates,” David Luban, an expert on war crimes at Georgetown University, told me. After the Second World War, tribunals vigorously applied the doctrine of command responsibility to Japanese and Nazi officers.

According to an internal I.C.T.Y. document from 2004, Limaj’s relatives and associates launched a campaign of “serious intimidation of and interference with potential witnesses.” Two men showed up at the house of one witness and warned him not to testify, adding, “If you make the mistake of going there, you will be dead.”

KLA atrocities during last war.
Someone called the wife of a second witness and threatened, “You will be liquidated.” A third witness withdrew after a relative overheard a group of men, at a café in Pristina, saying of any people who testified against Limaj, “We will burn them, their families, and their houses.”

A fourth witness refused to meet an I.C.T.Y. investigator, explaining that he “did not want to die.” Nazim Bllaca, a former K.L.A. member, told me, “This is how the Limaj case ended.”

On November 30, 2005, the tribunal acquitted Limaj, though the judges observed that a “context of fear, in particular with respect to witnesses living in Kosovo, was very perceptible throughout the trial.”

(A relative of one of Limaj’s indicted deputies was convicted of contempt, because he “knowingly interfered with” a witness.)

Bllaca says that he participated in more than a dozen violent acts on behalf of former K.L.A. members, including murder, kidnapping, and witness intimidation. Now under witness protection, he has testified in two cases, both of which have led to convictions. “It was very simple,” he told me.

“We worked in three lanes. Kill collaborators, kill Hague witnesses, and kill L.D.K. people”—members of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the chief rival of the party led by Thaci and Limaj. In the months after the war, many L.D.K. members were murdered; one was killed at home on his couch, and another was assassinated on a street in Pristina, in the middle of the day.

In a leaked 2005 memo, Germany’s foreign spy service asserted that Haradinaj and other Kosovar leaders had inoculated themselves against criminal investigations by leveraging their connections in Kosovo’s military and intelligence agencies, and throughout the Balkan underworld. Kosovar leaders had avoided “getting their hands dirty” even as their henchmen engaged in tactics such as contract killings and bribing officials.

KLA commanders suspected of committing war crimes.
Last year, I met with Limaj in Pristina. He denied any responsibility for prisoner abuse. When I asked him whether he had directed his subordinates to frighten witnesses into recanting testimony, he said, with a pinched smile, “I was in The Hague. If someone here did something which was wrong, this person has to respond.”

After Limaj was released from detention, Kosovars celebrated in the streets of Pristina.

In December, 2007, Del Ponte stepped down as the lead prosecutor, saying that it was “time to return to normal life.” She soon published a memoir, “Madame Prosecutor,” in which she recounted her successes in chasing Italian mobsters, Rwandan genocidaires, and Serbian generals.

But she fumed about her inability to make charges stick against the K.L.A. The Limaj and Haradinaj investigations were “the most frustrating” part of her time in The Hague—and proof that “impunity shrouds powerful political and military figures” in Kosovo. She voiced her suspicion that the K.L.A. had trafficked the organs of prisoners, and offered an account of her team’s visit to the yellow house.

Del Ponte told me that “the international community” had shown a “fear-driven reluctance to apply the law” in Kosovo, adding that the United States had displayed “no political will to find out the real truths.”

The K.L.A. had been a reliable ally of the Americans during the war, but it struck Del Ponte as hypocritical for the U.S. to ignore possible crimes by the group’s leaders, given the U.S. condemnation of Serbian misconduct. She also felt that allowing alleged perpetrators of war crimes to achieve leadership positions in Kosovo undermined the country’s prospects for stability.

After the publication of Del Ponte’s book, the Council of Europe decided to look deeper into the matter of organ trafficking. It assigned the task to Dick Marty, a senator from Switzerland who represented his country at the council, and who had looked into alleged human-rights abuses across the continent.

Hashim Thaci the Prime Minister of Kosovo.
His team had located C.I.A. “black sites” in Poland and Romania, and had exposed the murder of political opponents in Chechnya. Marty sent several investigators into the field. Experts in the region told him to expect a challenge, noting that the criminal networks in Albania and Kosovo were “probably more difficult to penetrate than the Cosa Nostra.”

Just as Marty’s team was getting to work, Hashim Thaci became the Prime Minister of Kosovo. In February, 2008, a month after taking office, he declared Kosovo’s independence. Joyous crowds in Pristina launched fireworks, and a giant yellow sculpture, forming the word “newborn,” in English, was installed in a plaza. Thaci stood before Kosovo’s parliament and declared, “From this day onward, Kosovo is proud, independent, and free.”

Not everyone saw Thaci in heroic terms. The 2005 German intelligence document claimed that, after the war, Thaci presided over an organized-crime empire whose leaders came from the Drenica Valley, in central Kosovo.

The Drenica group allegedly coordinated its activities with Albanian gangsters throughout Europe, engaging in money laundering and maintaining links to arms and drug smugglers. According to the German report, the group kept a “professional killer” in its employ.

Not long after Thaci became Prime Minister, Lutfi Dervishi, a urologist in Pristina, began pushing to open a transplant clinic. In Kosovo, doctors need official approval to perform such operations, so Dervishi turned to a former associate, Shaip Muja, a surgeon who was working as Thaci’s health adviser. Muja made several inquiries, and in March, 2008, Dervishi opened a clinic. During the next eight months, two dozen organ transplants took place there.

That October, a young Turkish man, who had agreed to accept twenty thousand dollars for one of his kidneys, arrived at the clinic in Pristina. The kidney was removed and placed inside a seventy-four-year-old Israeli man, who had paid ninety thousand euros for it.

KLA's armed thugs.
The operations were performed by Dervishi and by a Turkish surgeon, Yusuf Sonmez, who is known in the Turkish press as Dr. Frankenstein, for his prominent role in the black-market organ trade.

(Buying organs from volunteers is outlawed everywhere in the world except Iran; Luc Noël, a doctor at the World Health Organization, told me, “Human bodies should not be the source of financial gain.”)

The Turkish donor was released from the hospital while he was still woozy, and, when he got to the airport, police officers began questioning him. He said that he had donated a kidney, but the officers were suspicious and raced to the clinic, where they arrested Dervishi and his son. (Sonmez had fled.)

The clinic was shut down, and Dervishi, his son, and three others (including Sonmez, who remains a fugitive) were charged with human trafficking and organized crime by the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. The trial is currently under way, and a verdict is expected soon. According to the indictment, high-ranking Kosovars were complicit in the clinic’s activities and encouraged health officials to grant a bogus license.

Two days after prosecutors released the indictment, Dick Marty, the Swiss senator, published the results of his investigation. Marty claimed that Thaci and the Drenica group, which included Fatmir Limaj, had built a “formidable power base in the organized criminal enterprises” in the late nineties, and had exerted “violent control” over the heroin trade in the region.

During and after the war, Marty wrote, Thaci was the “boss” of a “network of unlawful activity”—one that included a constellation of detention camps in Albania, where some prisoners were subjected to abuse, including torture, murder, and organ harvesting.

One of the “leading co-conspirators,” Marty suggested, was Shaip Muja, the surgeon who became Thaci’s health adviser. Marty identified four sites, among them the yellow house outside Burrel, that had served as “way stations” in an organ-trafficking trade. At the farmhouse near the Tirana airport, prisoners were killed, “usually by a gunshot to the head,” before “being operated on.”

The sale of organs at Dervishi’s clinic, Marty wrote, indicated that Kosovars had continued organ trafficking after the war, “albeit in other forms.” He concluded, “Signs of collusion between the criminal class and high political and institutional office bearers are too numerous and too serious to be ignored.”

He acknowledged that Serbia’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo had been “appalling,” but insisted that the dynamic of violence was “more complex” than many had assumed: “There cannot and must not be one justice for the winners and another for the losers.”

Islamist PM Thaci was once accused of having a harem.
His accusations had an explosive effect in Kosovo. Thaci called Marty’s report “an attack” on “Kosovo, the Albanian people, and me, but also against the U.S., the U.N., and NATO.” Thaci appeared on an Albanian television program and threatened to expose every Kosovar and Albanian who had assisted Marty, saying, “These individuals will be disgraced.”

In private, Thaci spoke with less bravado. He fretted to friends about whether he could still look his eleven-year-old son in the face. He summoned the American, French, German, Italian, and British envoys. “He was rocked,” Jean-François Fitou, the French Ambassador to Kosovo at the time, recalled.

Thaci offered to resign if they considered him a diplomatic liability. They discussed Marty’s report. Although it was based on a sustained investigation, it did not provide conclusive details of any single crime, nor did it name sources, other than identifying them as “distinct and independent” K.L.A. insiders.

Moreover, Marty’s findings carried no judicial weight. The ambassadors told Thaci that, unless hard evidence emerged, he could count on their support.