Investigation 07 Feb 11

Missing Macedonians Remain Stuck in Freezer

Bodies of four Macedonians kidnapped in 2001 and found later that year remain stuck in a forensic institute, victims of a long row over their identification and over the identity of their killers.

Sase Dimovski

Balkan Insight can reveal that nine years after the bodies of four of 12 Macedonians kidnapped in the 2001 conflict were identified, they remain in a freezer in Skopje’s Forensics Institute.

The news casts fresh light on the case of the “Kidnapped Macedonians”. So far, the public has remained in the dark about the fate of the Macedonians kidnapped near the ethnic Albanian stronghold of Tetovo in northwest Macedonia between May and August 2001.

The families of the four Macedonians, who initially disputed forensic identification of their relatives, told Balkan Insight that if there are no new developments they will accept that these are their lost relatives and collect the remains this spring for burial.

Police found the four bodies, three of them heavily dismembered, in November 2001, after exhuming them near Tetovo, near the villages of Trebosh and Neprosteno.

The evidence that the police gathered in the “Neprosteno case” was handed to the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, ITCY, in The Hague.

But the Hague Tribunal did not file an indictment and returned the file to the Macedonian courts in 2007.

The case has continued to cause tension between the ruling VMRO-DPMNE partner and its junior ethnic Albanian partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, which is largely made up of former Albanian guerrillas who led the insurgency in 2001 and who were suspected of kidnapping the 12 Macedonians.

Relatives of 12 the victims have accused both the VMRO-DPMNE-led government of Nikola Gruevski and the courts of making no effort to clear up the case, so as to avoid friction with the DUI.

Macedonia’s Public Prosecutor for Organized Crime, Jovan Ilievski, says the investigation into the case is finished, and it now remains for them “to decide whether anyone will be charged. “I cannot give any other details,” he told Balkan Insight in January.

Nobody has asked for the bodies:

Police exhumed the four bodies in November 2001 near Trebosh and Neprosteno only months after the signing of the Ohrid peace accord.

This internationally brokered deal ended the 2001 conflict and granted greater rights to ethnic Albanians who make up about a quarter of Macedonia’s 2.1 million population.

The police were tasked with securing the location of a pit believed to hold the remains of the missing persons. But the exhumation was fraught and dangerous, and three policemen died in an ambush conducted by Albanian militants of the National Liberation Army, NLA.

“When we arrived, we noticed that someone had recently been digging there and we suspected that he had done that to remove something inside,” a police source involved in the 2001 investigation told Balkan Insight.

“The pit was full of medical waste and metal parts, as if somebody had tried to disguise the pit as a waste dump,” he added. “But we found the remains of four bodies, one of which was 4.5 metres down.”

Dr Aleksej Duma, director of the Forensic Institute in Skopje, told Balkan Insight that only one of the bodies was almost intact. The other three were just bones and extremities, although this proved enough to establish their identities.

Dr Duma said a team of medical experts from the institute first examined the bodies after which the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts laboratory determined their identities on the basis of DNA analysis.

“At the institute we weren’t able to determine the cause of death because of insufficient material for examination,” Dr Duma explained.

Dr Duma said they sent all the data to the court in Tetovo in charge of the investigation. But no one had since contacted them about the case, nor had the families asked for the bodies.

“The relatives of the missing persons didn’t accept the results of the identification, so the bodies have remained in the Forensics Institute,” he said.

Vojo Gogovski, whose father was kidnapped in 2001 and is one of the four identified persons, says he did not want to collect his father's remains until all 12 bodies were discovered, so they could all be buried together.

“We have indications that the rest remain buried in mass graves at several locations near Neprosteno,” he told Balkan Insight last December.

“But if they [the authorities] don’t start digging soon, by the spring of 2011 we will pick up the remains from the Forensics Institute,” he added.

Acting on the demand of the families of the 12, courts in Tetovo pronounced all 12 missing persons dead in 2005. By law, a missing person cannot be pronounced dead until three years have passed.

The relatives of the missing people meanwhile sued the Macedonian state for the deaths of their relatives and each received 6,000 to 20,000 euro in damages.

A deal not to open the case?

Gogovski and the other relatives of the victims say that Prime Minister Gruevski has not tried very hard to clear up the case. “We met the Prime Minister a month ago and he just redirected us to the Police Minister, Gordana Jankulovska, who said they were working on it,” Gogovski said.

“We don’t believe it,” he added. “We don’t believe there is any investigation. We fear the police know where our relatives are buried but there’s some kind of deal not to open the case.”

Officials from the DUI strongly deny putting pressure on the Gruevski government to keep a lid on the affair. But the DUI is in general against continued court procedures into suspected war crimes from the 2001 conflict. The party says that the Macedonian courts should archive cases that The Hague has looked at and decided not to pursue.

For its part, Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE denies hatching a deal with the DUI not to bring anyone to trial over the kidnappings. The ruling party says the case remains in the hands of the judiciary and does not belong in the domain of politics.

However, a former police minister, Ljube Boskoski, has made it clear that he believes the DUI leader has something to hide.

Boskoski is himself a highly controversial figure, having faced war-crimes charges in The Hague in 2005, for which he was acquitted in 2008.
He has since called on Ali Ahmeti, the DUI leader, in his capacity as former head of the NLA, to come clean on the whereabouts of the remaining eight bodies.

After the exhumation of the four bodies in Trebosh, “the killing of the three policemen prevented them from continuing the search at other locations,” he said. “Ahmeti must tell the public about the fate of the other missing Macedonians." 

Boskoski claimed that in 2001 Ahmeti sent a letter to the German contingent in KFOR, the Kosovo peacekeeping force, “in which he claimed to know of the whereabouts of 12 of the 24 Macedonians kidnapped at the time.

"The letter is serious evidence,” Boskoski told Balkan Insight.

A total of 24 were kidnapped in Macedonia during the conflict but 12 were released with assistance of the Red Cross.

Marty Report Fuels Organ Claims:

Continuing uncertainty about their relatives’ fate has fuelled claims from some families that the victims had their organ trafficked.

Rumours have gathered strength following the publication of Dick Marty’s controversial report to the Council of Europe, which alleges that ethnic Albanian fighters in the former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, trafficked in the organs of Serbs and Albanians who were kidnapped in Kosovo and taken to Albania.

The claims of the report are strongly denied in Albania and Kosovo, where the report has been denounced as biased, politically motivated and lacking in detail.

But families of the Macedonian kidnap victims say they have heard reports that six of the 12 Macedonians were transported to neighbouring Kosovo.

“I suspect my husband Dimitrija was victim of organ-trafficking in Kosovo,” Vena Dimovska, from Tetovo, told Balkan Insight.

The fact that only the lower extremities of her husband’s body were ever recovered has “increased my suspicions that someone killed him and sold his organs,” Dimovska said last December.

She recalled that in 2001, some senior Macedonian police officials said some of the missing Macedonians might have been transferred to Kosovo.

Janko Bacev, a former police intelligence agent who worked for the Directorate for Security and Counter Intelligence during 2001 and who now heads the People’s Movement party, has called for an intensified investigation following the release of the Marty report.

“The Directorate for Security and Counter Intelligence had evidence that six of the kidnapped were killed in Macedonia while the other six were transported to Kosovo,” he said.

Ahmeti denies any knowledge about the missing Macedonians.

Macedonian courts have accused in 2002 Daut Rexhepi Leka, a former commander of the NLA unit that controlled the Tetovo-Jazince area, where most of the Macedonians disappeared, of being directly responsible for the kidnapping of the 12 Macedonians.

Leka, who broke with Ahmeti after the end of the 2001 conflict, remains in parliament to this day. A former deputy for the now opposition Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, he quit the DPA two years ago and is now an independent MP.

He denies being responsible in any way for the missing people. In the only interview he gave on this subject, for the Dnevnik daily newspaper, on February 14, 2009, he said he did not know who kidnapped the 12 Macedonians.

“No one had any reason or need to do such a thing. I have no information on their fate,” he said.

“If I had the least involvement in that case I would have been the first to be sent to [the Hague Tribunal jail in] Scheveningen, but this did not happen because the Hague court probably had all the reports and information [on the case] from international institutions,” Leka added.

Leka said the DUI, which was in government from 2002-2006, had long tried to pin blame for the kidnappings on him for political reasons.

The Public Prosecutor for Organized Crime declined to comment on whether Leka will be formally charged for the crime. Ilievski said the Prosecution will make a decision on whether to press charges by March.

Police say that the search goes on. “This case is still open and it cannot be closed until we've found all the missing persons,” the police spokesperson, Ivo Kotevski, told Balkan Insight. “In addition, this is a case that according to the law cannot expire.”

Stojance Angelov, a police general in 2001, now head of an association of police and war veterans called “Dostoinstvo”, [Dignity], says it is shocking that the case remains unsolved.

“I can’t comprehend how it's possible that the counter-intelligence agency, which has operational information about the kidnapped and the kidnappers, after almost ten years, has not tried to solve this case,” Angelov told Balkan Insight. 

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