Organ theft in Kosovo
Organ theft in Kosovo (sometimes also known as the "yellow house" case) refers to the alleged organ harvesting and killing of an indeterminate number of disappeared people. Various sources had estimated that the number of victims ranged from a "handful", up to 50, between 24 to 100 to over 300. The victims were believed to be mostly ethnic Serbs of Kosovo, killed by perpetrators with strong links to elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1999.
According to UN allegations, the victims were chosen from a pool of about 100 to 300 combatants and civilians taken prisoner or kidnapped by the KLA during and after the Kosovo War and then allegedly taken to detention centers and private homes in northern and central Albania. The UN document indicates the involvement or at least knowledge of several mid-level and senior KLA commanders, the men were taken to a makeshift clinic near Tirana, Albania, where they were shot in the head and then had their organs removed. The United Nations (UN) war crimes prosecutors investigated the case in 2002 and 2003, and again in 2004, but concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove that the organ harvesting ring existed.
In 2010, a report by Swiss prosecutor Dick Marty to the Council of Europe (CoE) uncovered "credible, convergent indications" of an illegal trade in human organs going back over a decade, including the deaths of a "handful" of Serb captives killed for this purpose. On 25 January 2011, the report was endorsed by the CoE, which called for a full and serious investigation. Since the issuance of the report, however, senior sources in the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) and many members of the European Parliament have expressed serious doubts regarding the report and its foundations, believing Marty failed to provide "any evidence" concerning the allegations. A EULEX special investigation was launched in August 2011.
The head of the war crimes unit of EULEX (the European Law and Justice Mission in Kosovo), Matti Raatikainen, said "The fact is that there is no evidence whatsoever in this case, no bodies. No witnesses. All the reports and media attention to this issue have not been helpful to us. In fact they have not been helpful to anyone."
Del Ponte's book (2008)
The allegations first appeared in the media in The Hunt: Me and the War Criminals, written in 2008 by Carla Del Ponte, a former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In her book, Del Ponte states that Kosovo Albanians harvested organs of kidnapped ethnic Serbs after the armed conflict ended in 1999. These accusations were backed by her own visit to the site; several witnesses both in and out of the ICTY, one of whom "personally made an organ delivery" to an Albanian airport for transport abroad; and "confirmed information directly gathered by the tribunal."
Del Ponte concluded that if the case had been opened before Kosovo's declaration of independence, world governments might not have had the same stance on the Kosovo question. The Swiss government ordered Del Ponte not to discuss the case. She was accused of spreading unfounded rumors and her former press secretary distanced herself from Del Ponte. Bernard Kouchner, former top UN representative in Kosovo, stated in April 2011: "We were aware of the extortions, but we never heard of organ trafficking," rejecting the accusations made by Del Ponte.
"Yellow house" in Albania
After the war in Kosovo, American journalist Michael Montgomery obtained testimony from seven former KLA soldiers who said they had transported prisoners, dead and alive, from Kosovo to Albania. Some of Montgomery's sources referred to the possibility of organ-trafficking and identified a small yellow farmhouse in the village of Rripë near the remote town of Burrel, Albania. Montgomery provided a summary of his research to the Office of Missing Persons and Forensics (OMPF) at the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). A team of UN and ICTY investigators visited the house in February 2004. They found widespread traces of blood of uncertain provenance on the floor and medical surgical equipment on the rubbish dump and in the riverbed. The family living in the house offered contradictory and inconsistent explanations for the blood and equipment.
According to Del Ponte, witness statements indicated that a doctor, described as a Kosovar from Peć, might have removed the organs from up to 50 prisoners there. The villagers objected to the exhumation of the graves where the witnesses said that several victims were buried under false Albanian names. The UN then shelved their investigation, lacking the mandate to investigate crimes committed after the war had ended and also having gathered insufficient evidence to support an indictment. Most of the witnesses were taken to Italy for their protection and seem to have "disappeared from the face of the earth", having presumably gone into hiding.
Information obtained by the Serbian radio and television B92 alleged that prisoners were trafficked in trucks from Kosovo to Gurrë, Mat, in northern Albania, and to a KLA camp in Kukës, during and after the Kosovo War. The organ harvesting was presumably performed while the prisoners were alive in the so-called "Building/Prison 320", 20 km from the "yellow house" mentioned by Del Ponte as the site of the acts. B92 also alleged they have documents revealing that Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha was asked by the KLA leader and former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to send security forces to destroy all evidence connected to the disappearance and organ harvesting of Serbs from Kosovo who were transported to Albania.
According to the Serbian war crimes prosecution, "Building/Prison 320 is a neuro-psychiatric clinic. We believe that surgical operations were carried out there on civilians, as the conditions existed for such a thing. There was a prisoner camp there, as well as a KLA camp ... It differs markedly from what the Albanian prosecutor has been saying, who shut the case back in 2005." Serbian war crimes prosecutor, Bruno Vekarić, asserted that an additional 40 mental patients from Štimlje are thought to be victims of the organ theft. However, the Humanitarian Law Center conducted an investigation into the deaths of the named victims (two women with severe mental disabilities) and established that the women died of natural causes and were not victims of organ trafficking.
The Serbian investigation was re-launched on 21 March 2008, just ahead of Del Ponte's book release on 3 April 2008, when the country's prosecutors claimed they had sufficient evidence "to search the whole of Albania for mass graves of Serbs." Serbia urged Albania to cooperate but in late October 2008, Albanian officials replied that the charges were already investigated by the UN and Carla Del Ponte and that the Serbian government had no new evidence. On 14 November 2008, UNMIK invited Serbian war crimes prosecutors to join with them in a new investigation about the "yellow house".
On 20 November 2008, in line with ICTY's commitment of cooperation with Serbia, current ICTY chief Serge Brammertz provided Serbia evidence of the operation house in northern Albania. In response, the Albanian prosecutor said only a small amount of penicillin was found. An ICTY report stated that seven points were confirmed in the allegations and that the Albanian prosecutor and UNMIK failed to tell the truth when investigating the findings concerning surgical equipment.
According to the UN, the Albanian government has been trying to prevent inquiries into possible war crimes and the involvement of KLA elements in organ trade, even after proof of surgical procedures in the Burrel house was presented to them. Albanian officials claim that the allegations are speculative. However, Human Rights Watch believes otherwise. HRW has been conducting its own investigation into the allegations and has been calling for an independent probe to investigate crimes by former leaders of the KLA. HRW believes the allegations are credible and that simple harvesting of kidneys could have been easily performed even without surgical tools, although such were found at the scene.
In August 2009, Albanians in the village of Rripë prevented representatives of the CoE (under Dick Marty) from searching houses relating to the case. The locals said they would not let anyone other than the Albanian government examine potential evidence, although the Albanian and Kosovo authorities have said they will not investigate. Serbian war crime prosecutors have said that new evidence has been found and that the investigation is ongoing. The Council of Europe is still interested in the case and embassies are sending data to the war crimes committee. Additionally, new potential witnesses have been found that could "open up the case in the real sense of the word".
On 27 December 2009, Serbian prosecutor Vladimir Vukčević announced that the names of "the people who were in the house" were uncovered, as well as victims from beyond Kosovo, "some Russian and Czech citizens". He further advised that organs were believed sold "in the West and East, in Turkey, and Saudi Arabia". On 9 September 2012, Vukčević said Serbia is protecting an unnamed witness, described as a former KLA member who claims to have participated in harvesting a heart from a Serb captive in northern Albania and transporting it to the airport near Tirana. Serbian prosecutors "estimate that the information this witness has given is true."
In June 2009, a Kosovo Serb and two Serbian citizens, accused of being provocateurs, were arrested by the Kosovo Police for allegedly offering money in exchange for statements confirming organ trading and to mediators finding such information. The three have been investigated for inciting people to falsely testify that they were victims of organ harvesting. The accused were released in February 2010 and the case was dismissed by EULEX.
In May 2010, EULEX chief war crimes investigator Matti Raatikainen said: "The fact is that there is no evidence whatsoever in this case. No bodies. No witnesses. All the reports and media attention to this issue have not been helpful to us. In fact they have not been helpful to anyone." According to BBC News, Raatikainen said that "the main problem" was that "the scandal created by the allegations has distracted attention from the real work of finding the remains of 1,861 people still missing from the war and its aftermath, and prosecuting their killers - in Serbia, Kosovo and Albania." Earlier that same month, EULEX made the first arrest in connection with a case of illegal detention camps in Albania, especially in the north-east Albanian town of Kukës, which held ethnic Albanians suspected of disloyalty to the KLA. "But constant revelations in the Serbian press that new evidence, or new witnesses have emerged for the organ-trafficking allegations, have all proven either false, or unsubstantiated," according to BBC News. One EULEX investigator called it a "fairy-tale". A source close to the Serbian investigation was also quoted as saying "I still believe something happened there, but nothing on the scale of what has been suggested... and possibly not even connected to the KLA."
The European Union has set up an investigation, with a task force headed by U.S. prosecutor John Clint Williamson. Although, Kosovo and Albania continue to deny the accusations, on 2 May 2012, Albania drafted legislation allowing an EU-led investigation, which would permit international investigators to conduct the probe on Albanian territory. Prime minister Sali Berisha stressed that for Albania it is "a priority" to investigate allegations made by Dick Marty. First indications of Williamson's report conclusions indicate that there is no basis for the allegations.
Medicus clinic in Kosovo
In November 2008, several men were arrested after a raid on an organ trafficking ring in Pristina after a Turkish national, Dr. Yusuf Sonmez, was questioned by the Kosovo police. Two urologists and a manager working in the private clinic Medicus, none of whom were qualified to perform surgery, were conducting an organ trafficking business at their clinic from 1998 until their arrest in late 2008.
Sonmez is also believed to have been active in Baku, Azerbaijan, where a local investigation found "citizens of various countries" were brought into the country for illegal kidney transplants. Reportedly, Sonmez was "involved" in the alleged racket, which also had operations in Ecuador. A group of four Ukrainian doctors were arrested in this case by Azeri and Ukrainian authorities. In addition, Sonmez, who has admitted to performing thousands of transplants, which he claims were all voluntary for humanitarian purposes, has been repeatedly arrested for organ transplants in his native country.
On 12 January 2011, Yusuf Sonmez, dubbed "Dr. Frankenstein" by Turkish media, was arrested in Istanbul. In September 2011, a Turkish prosecutor requested a 171-year prison sentence for Sonmez, who was charged with performing at least 11 illegal organ removal surgeries at the Medicus clinic, illicit organ trafficking, and forming a criminal gang. The prosecutor demanded the same sentence for the accused mediator, an Israeli citizen, Moshe Harel.
In another case, five (later nine) people, including the former Kosovo government secretary of health, were indicted on 15 October 2010 by an EULEX court in Pristina, Kosovo, accused of direct or indirect involvement in a number of non-lethal illegal kidney transplantations at the Medicus clinic. The accused are said to have lured impoverished people from Turkey, Russia, Moldova and Kazakhstan with false promises of payment for their organs. According to The Guardian, the newspaper "has established that organs are believed to have been shipped to Istanbul in a criminal racket operated by Yusuf Sonmez, the same Turkish doctor wanted by Interpol for his alleged involvement in the Medicus clinic."
Prosecutor Marty's report (2010)
On 12 December 2010, a draft report from Swiss prosecutor Dick Marty to the Council of Europe was pre-released. The report alleged that the Republic of Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaçi was the head of a "mafia-like" group responsible for smuggling weapons, drugs and human organs through eastern Europe. As stated in the report, the KLA held prisoners in a network of six facilities located in Albania, and Thaçi's "Drenica Group" had the greatest responsibility for the prisons and the fate of those held there.
"Some Serbians and some Albanian Kosovars were held prisoner in secret places of detention under KLA control in northern Albania and were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, before ultimately disappearing," the report says. A "handful" of the healthiest prisoners were presumably transferred to a farmhouse near Fushë-Krujë, not far the Albanian capital of Tirana, where they were killed for their kidneys.
The report states: "As and when the transplant surgeons were confirmed to be in position and ready to operate, the captives were brought out of the 'safe house' individually, summarily executed by a KLA gunman, and their corpses transported swiftly to the operating clinic." Some of the captives were aware of the fate that awaited them and pleaded not to be "chopped up". The organs were then subsequently shipped to Istanbul, Turkey.
Marty's report, entitled "Inhuman treatment of people and illicit trafficking in human organs in Kosovo", was presented to the Council of Europe Foreign Relations Committee on 16 December 2010, and was expected to be on the agenda of the Session of Council of Europe in January 2011. The report made waves across the world and led to a series of similar reports. The Swiss foreign ministry noted that Marty's report contained "grave accusations made on the basis of countless witness accounts and evidence."
The EULEX announced that they regarded the report very seriously and called for supporting evidence. On 17 January 2011, the EULEX Special Prosecutor's Office met with Albanian officials to discuss the organ case. UNMIK chief Lamberto Zannier said that EULEX, which is now in charge of dealing with war crimes in Kosovo, was given every war crimes file that the ICTY and the UN possessed, including witness statements.
Kosovo's government has denied the crimes and criticized the report as "biased", "politically motivated" and anti-Albanian". Speaking at a press conference, Marty claimed that the content of his report was known to Western intelligence agencies, who deliberately chose to downplay the allegations for the sake of foreign-policy objectives. Kosovo interim President Jakup Krasniqi asked the EU not to endorse the report, saying "I welcome your support in not allowing adoption of this report as an official document of the Council of Europe." Former Kosovo prime minister and KLA commander, currently Social Democrat leader Agim Çeku, accused Belgrade of creating the allegations, saying "Every accusation against the KLA comes from Serbia or its helpers. It's just an attempt to blacken our war and our victory."
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha responded by calling Marty "racist and antisemitic", while Albanian MP Shpëtim Idrizi alleged that the report "is something ordered by Russia and Serbia, and offers no facts. This is a story full of untruths and propaganda." On the other hand, Albanian former communist-era dissident Fatos Lubonja said it is important for an investigation to be conducted: "It matters not only for international justice, not only for the Serbs, it matters also for the Kosovo Albanians who have such leaders. If these leaders are criminals, if they face accusations of being criminals, they cannot create a democratic order."
Hashim Thaçi himself denied the crimes and his associates announced they would file a lawsuit against Marty. Thaçi also announced that he will publish a list of witnesses who contributed to the report that would discredit it, stating "There are witnesses and evidence which shows in what way the report was made." Thaçi's political opponents denounced the report and the accusations as "unacceptable". In 2011, Marty retracted earlier comments and claimed that his report has "never" implicated Thaçi directly, but rather his close associates. However, he added that it is "hard to believe that he [Thaçi] never heard about that."
On 25 January 2011, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted to adopt a resolution based on the Marty report. 166 PACE members voted in favor, while eight voted against the document. Several amendments proposed by the Albanian delegation were rejected and the Council called for a full and serious investigation. The resolution calls on the international community and governments in Belgrade and Priština, as well as in Albania, to "undertake measures" in order to clear up the crimes.
On 8 February 2011, The Wall Street Journal published an article by Denis MacShane questioning the allegations in Marty's report. According to a former prosecutor in the case against Slobodan Milosevic, Sir Geoffrey Nice, the Marty report provides no evidence, no victims and a witness that does not exist. Nice dismissed the allegations as attempts to undermine Kosovo's independence.
In March 2011, Marty presented his report to the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, whose members said after the meeting that Marty did not provide any evidence, while some of them claimed that he attacked and accused of bias those who questioned his report. In a heated debate, Marty told the MEPs that a witness protection program was needed in Kosovo, before he could provide more details on witnesses to the trafficking as their lives were in danger.
In January 2011, The Guardian released NATO documents from 2004 that identified Hashim Thaçi as under the control of the Albanian mafia, in particular former KLA chief of logistics Xhavit Haliti. Haliti, who "serves as a political and financial adviser to the prime minister", was described as "highly involved in prostitution, weapons and drugs smuggling". According to the article, Haliti uses fake passports to travel abroad because he is blacklisted in several countries, including the United States. "Haliti is also named in the report by Marty, which is understood to have drawn on NATO intelligence assessments along with reports from the FBI and MI5," according to the article.
On 17 February 2011, the media obtained a classified document which suggests that the UN knew about the organ trafficking and the criminal involvement of senior KLA commanders as early as 2003. On 20 February 2011, Jose Pablo Baraybar, former UNMIK Forensics and Missing Persons Office head, confirmed that the United Nations was given confidential material about organ trafficking in Kosovo by an anonymous official. The statements, compiled in 30-pages, were made to the UN by at least eight "low to midlevel ranking KLA members". The documents have been given the name "CX-103".
Head of the ICTY Mission to Skopje and Priština Eamon Smith sent a letter to the ICTY Chief Investigator Patrick Lopez Terez on 30 October 2003, informing Lopez about Smith's meeting and conversation with UNMIK Justice Department head Paul E. Coffey. Smith presented his conclusions regarding the human organ trafficking case based on testimony by former KLA members. In 2002-2003, a number of ex-KLA ethnic Albanian witnesses from Kosovo and Montenegro gave detailed testimony about the revenge killings of Serbs and trading of kidneys, livers and other organs in the aftermath of the Kosovo War, taking place as late as the summer of 2000.
The witnesses reported that between 100 and 300 people were kidnapped in mid-1999 and transported to detention facilities in northern Albania, where they were held. Some of the captives in the 25-50 year age range were subjected to medical exams at given locations. The witnesses described how they buried victims to hide evidence of killings. The UN briefly investigated the claims but did not launch the probe, prompting accusations of double standards against the UN by Serbia.
Most of the victims were Serbs who were abducted in Kosovo between June and October 1999, the document stated. Those people were allegedly held at different KLA-run prisons in Albania and in some cases their organs were removed at a home set up as a medical clinic, where specialized equipment and medical personnel were in place to carry out the operations.
In December 2003, a top justice official in Kosovo, Paul Coffey, wrote to Jonathan Sutch, an ICTY official in Kosovo, that the crimes were reported to the UN in Kosovo by "multiple sources of unknown reliability." Coffey said the information was "based on interviews with at least eight sources, the credibility of whom is untested, all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo or Montenegro who served in the KLA." One of the witnesses is quoted as telling the UN that the first two organ harvesting surgeries were done "to breach the market", and that traffickers later were able to make up to $45,000 per body. "The largest shipment was when they did 5 Serbs together. ... He said they took a fortune that time. Other shipments were usually from two or three Serbs," according to the document.
A source said that the organs were taken through Tirana's International Airport Nënë Tereza to the Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul, and that workers at the airports were bribed "to close their eyes". Two sources said they personally took part in delivering body parts (hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys) to Tirana’s international airport. One source said he was instructed by his KLA superiors not to mistreat the prisoners and that he became suspicious when they were to deliver "a briefcase or a file with papers that would be given to the doctor when the captives were delivered" to the house in northern Albania, adding that he used to bring prisoners there but never drove any of them back.
Witnesses state that top KLA members and doctors from Kosovo and abroad were fully aware of the transport and surgeries and that they were actively involved in them. The sources also told the UN that the house where the organs were harvested was a two-hour drive from Tirana airport. The UN and ICTY investigators visited a house in the village of Rripë in 2004 and found pieces of medical equipment, medicine boxes and blood traces. Other victims include some women described as "prostitutes", of whom at least two were believed abducted in Albania.
EULEX Special Investigative Task Force investigation
In spring 2011, the EU Rule of Law mission in Kosovo (EULEX), with the full support of all 27 EU Member States, decided to set-up a Special Investigative Task Force with the view to further the investigation into the allegations contained in the Council of Europe report of Dick Marty.
In April 2013 an EU-led court in Kosovo found five people guilty in connection with a human organ-trafficking ring at the Medicus Clinic in Pristina. The found that the Medicus Clinic recruited poor people from across eastern Europe and central Asia, promising them 15,000 euro for their organs. The trade was discovered when a Turkish man collapsed after having one of his kidneys removed at the clinic. The clinic's director, urologist Lutfi Dervishi was sentenced to eight years in prison for organised crime and human trafficking. His son, Arban, was sentenced to seven years and three months, while three other defendants received between one and three years' imprisonment. Meanwhile two former government officials also charged in the case have been cleared of involvement.
In July 2014, Clint Williamson, the lead prosecutor with the task force, told a press conference in Brussels that unnamed “senior officials of the former Kosovo Liberation Army” will face indictments for crimes against humanity and other abuses. He said there were “compelling indications” that “a few individuals were killed with the intention of extracting their organs” by KLA fighters, but the allegations that hundreds of prisoners were killed and their organs sold was “totally unsupported”.
New EU Tribunal
On April 4, 2014 media reported EU plans to start in 2015 a tribunal, costing $170M, and funded by the EU, that will try Albanians involved in the organ traffic. The U.S. ambassador to Kosovo Tracey Ann Jacobson said that the proposed establishment of a special tribunal to deal with allegations of organ trafficking by former Kosovo Albanian rebels would help Kosovo build up its "international credibility." Press reports suggested that the EU and the government of Kosovo have yet to reach an agreement for the establishment of the tribunal. The Kosovan authorities insist on a domestic court staffed by local judges. EULEX chief Bernd Borchardt in June 2014 said that the special court is supposed to work in accordance with Kosovar law to the extent this is applicable. This court will not only have a seat in Kosovo, but also outside the country; in particular, to make witness statements easier.
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- About SITF
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