Feature 04 Sep 15

Kosovo Organ-Trafficking: How the Claims were Exposed

A memo written in 1999 by journalist Michael Montgomery, who investigated alleged organ-trafficking by Kosovo guerrillas after the war, ultimately led to the establishment of a new war crimes court.

Marija Ristic BIRN Belgrade
Montgomery uncovered allegations about the trafficking of the organ of prisoners who had been abducted by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Photo: Vice

Speaking at a conference on freedom of the media in Belgrade on Thursday, American investigative journalist Michael Montgomery recalled how his investigation into wartime crimes by Serbian fighters in 1999 led him to uncover allegations about the trafficking of the organ of prisoners who had been abducted by the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Fifteen years later, these allegations led to the establishment of a new internationally-backed special court which will be set up in the coming months by the Kosovo authorities, to be based both in the former Serbian province and in the Netherlands.

As Balkans correspondent for the London-based Daily Telegraph, Montgomery covered the conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, then returned to Kosovo after the war in July 1999 to co-produce a major radio documentary, ‘Massacre at Cuska’, which documented the killings of Kosovo Albanian villagers by Serbian forces.

“At that time we heard that there were people - Serbs, Roma, some Kosovo Albanians - killed by Kosovo Liberation Army, and they simply vanished and it was very strange and we started looking into that,” Montgomery told the conference in Belgrade organised by US magazine Newsweek.

“And because of our work in Cuska, we got very good sources on the Kosovo Albanian side and we started talking with low levels of the KLA and they started telling us these stories of captured civilians being moved across the border to Albania,” he continued.

“My sources were low-level KLA guys who were drivers or were in vehicles when these people were driven. But as these were the low-level guys they didn’t know the whole picture.”

According to Montgomery, he and his team didn’t have enough corroboration to publish a story, but they did produce a memo which they sent to UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, which was the administrative authority in Kosovo after the war ended in June 1999.

“We had multiple sources but not everything lined up. We had people who heard that people have been taken away for their kidneys. There were couple of houses we were able to locate where these things allegedly happened, but we decided we didn’t have enough information to publish and that at the time our evidence didn’t support the allegations,” he said.

The memo they sent to UNMIK went to the UN-backed International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, which was then investigating crimes committed during the Kosovo war.

In 2004, Montgomery accompanied a joint team of investigators from the ICTY and UNMIK on a visit to a farmhouse near the Albanian town of Burrel.

It was alleged that Serb prisoners were taken by KLA fighters to the farmhouse, now widely known as the ‘Yellow House’, to have their organs harvested for sale.

The team found medical equipment, including syringes, intravenous drip bags, and stomach tranquilisers at the Yellow House. However, this evidence was later destroyed by the ICTY after the investigation was dropped because there was not enough proof to mount prosecutions.

Montgomery’s initial investigation only become public when the ICTY’s former prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, published his original memo in her memoirs in 2009.

“It doesn’t name us but says the information came from reliable journalists. Carla del Ponte was very frustrated with the failure of the ICTY to prosecute KLA leaders and there was a lot of intimidation of witnesses. I think she put information in the book because she wanted to spark an investigation, and it did,” Montgomery explained.

The EU investigates

Montgomery was speaking at a conference on freedom of the media in Belgrade on Thursday. Photo: BIRN

After Del Ponte published her book, the Council of Europe set up a team lead by rapporteur Dick Marty, who in 2011 published a report saying that evidence was mounting that groups including senior KLA guerrillas had been part of an organ-harvesting and trafficking network operating from a villa in the town of Fushe Kruje, Albania, which was part of an established network.

Some ethnic Serbs and Albanians were killed there, the report alleges, after which their kidneys were removed. The report also details other alleged human rights abuses by elements connected to the KLA, as well as “a nexus” between KLA elements and organised crime.

After the report, the EU set up a task force which conducted a three-year investigation into the allegations and a released its own report which said there was evidence to prosecute unnamed senior Kosovo Liberation Army officials for crimes against humanity including abductions and murders committed after the 1999 conflict.

It also said that there were “compelling” indications that KLA fighters had been involved in organ-trafficking, although only on a very limited scale with a few individuals involved.

“A small number of individuals were killed for the purpose of extracting and trafficking their organs,” the task force report said.

These findings provided the basis for prosecutions at the new war crimes court. The new ‘specialist chambers’, as they are diplomatically described in the legislation adopted by Kosovo MPs last month, are expected to be up and running and to take on their first cases in the first half of next year.

They are due to try former KLA fighters for their alleged involvement in the killings, abductions, illegal detentions and persecution of Serbs, Roma and Kosovo Albanians believed to be collaborators with the Serbian regime or political opponents of the KLA leadership.

Organ trafficking is not directly mentioned in the legislation passed by the Kosovo parliament enabling the new court to be established. But it does say that people can be prosecuted for “subjecting persons who are in the power of an adverse party to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are neither justified by medical, dental or hospital treatment”.

Montgomery said that the Serbian public broadcaster RTS did a lot of harm to the investigation by publishing the names of two of the witnesses in a report that was broadcast and published online in 2009.

“The RTS article appeared right after the book and it names them, two confidential witnesses, two Albanians who witnessed the events in the Albanian town of Kukes, and I don’t know why the media outlet would name two confidential witnesses, and in a story which is about Serbia and Serbian victims,” Montgomery said.

“I don’t know why they did it, but they did and put people at risk, and at that point the stories exploded,” he added.

According to Montgomery, the UN and NATO should take some responsibility for what happened after the Kosovo war because “this happened on their watch”

“They are not responsible for the killings but they had legal authority over the areas where this happened,” he said.

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