Analysis 07 Jun 12

South Serbia Left Reeling from Election-Time Arrests

Cynical-looking arrests of ethnic Albanians in the election campaign, on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the amnesty law, has further undermined stability in the tense border region.

Marija Ristic

 Serbian police taking the arrested men to the custody in Belgrade I Photo by Beta

The fall-out continues in Serbia’s troubled South Serbia region following the dramatic arrests of five Albanians during the Serbian election campaign and their equally sudden release once the election was over.

Judicial experts and human rights workers say police and prosecutors misinterpreted the law, blatantly violated human rights and set back the peace-building process in the ethnically divided region.

South Serbia was the scene of an armed conflict in 2001, pitting a local ethnic Albanian guerilla force, the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, against the Serbian authorities.

The Serbian authorities released five ethnic Albanians from south Serbia on May 30.

They were arrested beginning of May, days before the election, on the orders of Ivica Dacic, the Interior Minister and leader of the Serbian Socialist Party, once led by the intolerant semi-dictator Slobodan Milosevic. 

Critics say plugging into the Serbian nationalist voting base during the election campaign was the driving force behind the move.

 History of the South Serbia Conflict :

The conflict between Serbs and Albanians in south Serbia started in 2000 and lasted until 2001.

In the late-1990s a guerilla force, the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, was formed whose goal was joining South Serbia to Kosovo.

The unit was disarmed in 2001 following an internationally brokered peace deal, after which the Yugoslav Army re-entered the demilitarized area near the border with Kosovo with the approval of NATO.

After the conflict ended in South Serbia, the authorities signed the Amnesty Law, which freed all armed men who had participated in the conflict from threat of prosecution.

The law applies to all those accused of terrorism or joint criminal enterprises in the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja in relation to acts carried out between January 1999 and May 2001.


Elhami Salihi, Mustafa Limani, Sherif Abdiri, Nedir Sefedini and Sevdai Emurlahi were arrested for alleged war crimes committed in the 2001 conflict.

They spent 25 days in custody before being released days after the May 6 elections in Serbia ended.

Serbia’s Office for the Prosecution for War Crimes has not gone public on the case, but a source from office admitted mistakes were clearly made, since the authorities had evidently misunderstood the Law on Amnesty of 2002.

“We wrongly interpreted the Law, since we believed the conflict in South Serbia was armed, so that any crimes committed then were war crimes,” this source said.

“But the Amnesty Law qualifies… all the crimes committed in South Serbia from January 1999 until May 2001 as terrorist and criminal acts, not as war crimes,” the source added.

Accordingly, all those who handed in their weapons in 2001, including the five arrested men, were entitled to an amnesty from the state, preventing their prosecution.

Legal experts describe the case as a mockery of the judicial system, as do several civil society activists.

Nikola Lazic, a Belgrade-based lawyer, says the prosecution argument was unprofessional, as the authorities should have checked all the data before making arrests.

“Claiming that… the crimes should be prosecuted as war crimes just because you believe it so… is simply arrogance, impudence and incompetence,” Lazic said.

“If the Prosecution believes this is a reasonable explanation, and that they can order arrests on the basis of their interpretations, not on the law, they are simply mocking the legal system,” he added.

Natasa Kandic, Head of the Humanitarian Law Centre I Photo by Media Centre

Natasa Kandic, head of the Humanitarian Law Centre, in Belgrade, says the whole case was shrouded in mystery from the start, describing the behavior of the both the Prosecution and the Interior Ministry as scandalous.

“We haven’t seen any documents related to this case. It is clear that the prosecution was used for political purposes in the midst of the election campaign - not the first time,” Kandic told Balkan Insight.

The case was handed in an unusual manner as the arrested men and their legal teams were given no information, prompting further speculation that political reasons lay behind it.

The five men, including an OSCE translator, who was not only amnestied but previously vetted by the OSCE and the State Security, were picked up in the Presevo area on May 4 during the election silence, and taken to Belgrade.

Serbia’s Chief War Crimes Prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, explained that the men were suspected of war crimes but gave no further information.

Balkan Insight has since found out that the Interior Ministry provided the information on which basis the Prosecutor’s Office issued the arrest warrants. 

The men were questioned by an investigative judge in Belgrade, who prolonged their custody on the basis of the war-crimes allegation, notwithstanding the Law on Amnesty.

When they were later released, the men were not informed about whether the charges had been dropped or whether an investigation was still ongoing, Belgzim Kamberi, head of the Committee for Human Rights in Presevo, noted.

In spite of requests from Balkan Insight to see them, no documents have been made public, clarifying the charges.

Election gimmick that threatens peace:

In the South Serbia region, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians, the move has been seen as a politically driven gimmick, which has the potential to undermine the fragile peace achieved after the 2000-2001 conflict.

Riza Halimi, an ethnic Albanian member of the Serbian parliament from the region, says the arrests showed “a continuation of state terror” against the ethnic Albanian community in Serbia.

“All this happened just two days before the election. The intention was to score political points by playing with the destiny of this state and this region,” Halimi maintained. 

Belgzim Kamberi agrees that the arrests show that Serbia’s justice system is still under the influence of politics and that South Serbia is liable to be used as a playground for Serbian politicians.

Serbian Minister of Internal Affairs, Ivica Dacic, holding a press conference after the arrests I Photo by Beta

“Most things happening here are under the influence of politics. We saw this as an action run by Dacic, and what we fear the most is that it is a continuation of Milosevic’s old policy,” Kamberi notes.

The Milosevic regime conducted a policy of repression against ethnic minorities, Albanians especially, culminating in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

According to recent research by the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, the biggest challenge for this region is local people’s lack of trust in Serbian institutions.

Although no armed conflict is now ongoing, a sharp ethnic division in local society remains present.

This is particularly evident in the education system, with Albanian and Serbian children attending different schools.

The number of Albanians working in state institutions also remains insignificant. Most of them also view the Kosovo capital, Pristina as their de-facto capital, not Belgrade.

The Albanian population feels that talk of multiculturalism is just on paper, while Serbian institutions fail to get serious on integration.

Serbia formed a multi-ethnic police in order to address the issues of mistrust, but the force is deemed to have failed in its primary purpose of easing distrust.

The presence of Serbian security services is still perceived as a threat.

Secret arrest warrants:

BIRN has twice asked the Ministry of Interior for a complete list of those charged with war crimes and actions against the constitution. The Ministry responded that no such document exists.

The Ministry did not answer the question about where people can find out whether they are on the arrest list or not.

Our request is currently before the Office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance.


Sima Gazikalovic, president of the Coordination Body for South Serbia, a government body tasked with liaising with the region, says the arrests have damaged trust, which was fragile even before these events.

He refused to comment directly on the action of the Serbian police and prosecution because of “the serious nature of the crime”.

The editor of a local Spektri TV station, Baki Rexepi, also says the arrests and releases have badly affected the troubled region.

“Serbia showed us it is still a police state,” he said.

“We had this kind of situation with Milosevic, and now we have it with Dacic, who was his right-hand man during the 1990s,” Rexepi told Balkan Insight.

“Those people [the five men] were available to justice for years. They were living here, so we should question why these arrests occurred in the election campaign,” he added.

“Our biggest concern is now who is next? It can be me, it can be one of my colleagues, it can be anyone,” Rexepi concluded.

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