A two-year investigation has lifted the lid from the long-suppressed story of the Kosovo leadership’s organized criminal activities. The inquiry, led by human rights investigator Dick Marty, was conducted at the behest of the Council of Europe and focused specifically on the illegal trafficking in human organs.
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci of Kosovo controls many of the criminal enterprises, and his ties with organized crime reach back to the late 1990s when he ascended to leadership of the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Even before the NATO war in 1999, the KLA and its political allies had already become the leading supplier of heroin to western Europe, and Albanian criminal gangs tied to the KLA had violently pushed the Mafia out of areas of Italy. Another prominent source of income for the KLA was the forcible abduction of women into sexual slavery. Profits from criminal activities went to the purchase of arms for the KLA and the personal enrichment of the KLA’s criminal bosses.
According to Marty’s investigation, his team found “that a small but inestimably powerful group of KLA personalities apparently wrested control of most of the illicit criminal activities in which Kosovar Albanians were involved in the Republic of Albania, beginning at the latest in 1998.” Led by Hashim Thaci, this group soon came to dominate organized criminal enterprises in both Kosovo and neighboring Albania, often in partnership with Albanian syndicates. Operations involved protection rackets and “such activities as human trafficking, sale of stolen motor vehicles, and the sex trade.”
Once Yugoslav forces withdrew from the province of Kosovo in June 1999, the KLA conducted a campaign of repression, under the indifferent gaze of occupying NATO forces. Serbian and Roma (Gypsy) civilians who had not fled were threatened, forced from their homes, and sometimes killed outright. Albanians who had held government positions, even those who had occupied low-level positions such as mail carriers, became targets of violence.
Many were taken prisoner and transported to Albania, where they passed through a series of way stations and interrogation centers. These activities involved the Albanian secret service and military intelligence. Prisoners were beaten with sticks or metal pipes and tortured not only by KLA soldiers but also at times by Albanian intelligence officers. There were few survivors, and the report notes “that the vast majority of the persons whom we found to have been so treated remain unaccounted for to the present day, including numerous ethnic Albanians.”
Marty’s investigatory team obtained “first-hand testimony from former KLA fighters and auxiliaries who carried out multiple transports into and between the facilities…as well as transports of captives out of most of them.” Prisoners were usually transported in trucks or vans, and on occasion in convoys. In addition to supplies for the KLA, these trucks carried “groups of women who would be exploited for sex.”
One detention center “was styled as a makeshift operating clinic, and it was the site at which some of the captives held by KLA members and affiliates had their kidneys removed against their will.” Witnesses told Marty’s team that the organs were shipped out of Albania and sold to “private overseas clinics as part of the international ‘black market’ of organ-trafficking for transplantation.”
Prisoners were filtered based on age, sex, health condition, and ethnic origin for suitability for the forced removal of organs, with Serbs being particularly singled out. Captives were also bought and sold like cattle.
Sources also mentioned “a large number of trafficked women and girls being brought to the K. House [KLA detention center in the town of Rripe], where they were exploited for sex not only by the KLA personnel, but also by some of the men folk in the Rripe community.” Residents of Rripe were encouraged to keep silent about the activities at K. House through threats and payoffs, “including significant sums of money, as well as free access to alcohol, drugs, and prostitutes.”
Although the investigating team found “substantial elements of proof” that some captives were murdered at K. House, this location was primarily used as a way station, and most prisoners met their end elsewhere.
More often, captives were killed at Fushe-Kruje. At some point along the processing route, a few prisoners figured out what lay in store for them, and begged the KLA soldiers to shoot them instead of letting them be “chopped into pieces.” With blood tests and physical examinations, it soon became apparent to many prisoners that they “were being treated as some form of medical commodities.” One can imagine the terror the prisoners felt once that realization dawned on them.
In most such cases, prisoners were dispatched by a gunshot to the head, and their bodies were taken immediately to be operated on and harvested for organs.
According to Serbian sources, Kosovo officials tied to the KLA opened accounts at banks in Switzerland, Albania, Germany, and other western European countries, and deposited money earned from the sale of human organs.
In one report, a former KLA soldier revealed that organs were not only removed in Albania. In many cases, prisoners were taken aboard ships operating in the Adriatic Sea, where surgeons “dismantled them to their constituent parts.” The source spoke of driving two garbage trucks, one of which carried the bodies of murdered Serbs, and the other containing Serbian prisoners being taken to camps where they were first tortured and then killed. Another Albanian witness has testified to seeing prominent KLA leaders, including Hashim Thaci, participating in the torture of prisoners.
Prisoners were “routinely tortured,” a former KLA soldier told reporters for Balkan Insight. “I saw people being beaten, stabbed, hit with batons. I saw people left without food or water for five or six days. I saw coffins being thrown in graves. I’ve seen people killed.”
The illicit trafficking in human organs continued long after the end of the Kosovo War. At a district court in Pristina, Kosovo, a case is being tried in which the Medicus Clinic is charged with making false promises of payment to impoverished Russians, Moldavians, Kazakhs, and Turks in exchange for giving up their kidneys. According to Marty’s investigation, evidence indicates that the KLA’s forcible removal of organs is closely linked to the Medicus case. Prominent Kosovo Albanians are co-conspirators in both operations. A high-ranking official in the Kosovo government commented, “In many respects, the two are similar operations. In both cases, you’ve got illegal outfits linking senior players among the Kosovar Albanians trading in the organs of innocent victims, playing into an international racket to profit from the surgeries.”
These and many other crimes committed by the KLA and Kosovo leadership have long been known. For years, Serbian officials gathered and offered evidence, which was routinely ignored. The information was also well known to Western intelligence and military sources but hushed up. Marty reveals that secret Western intelligence reports identified Hashim Thaci “as the most dangerous of the KLA’s ‘criminal bosses.'”
Italian General Mauro Del Vecchio led a NATO brigade entering Kosovo in June 1999, in the wake of the KLA rampage. He recalled that one could smell the scent of death from miles away. “In the first twenty days or so, I received every day reports on the corpses of Serbs and the Roma that had been left lying along the roads. Those who did not flee Kosovo, risked to be killed or kidnapped.” Abandoned Serbian houses were torched, as were churches and monasteries. Vecchio reports that this was a “taboo topic,” and NATO soldiers were not allowed to speak about the matter to reporters. Photographs taken by NATO soldiers of victims of KLA crimes were confiscated.
At the press conference announcing the results of his team’s investigation, Dick Marty pointed out, “I didn’t write anything new. What is new is that someone has said it, and put it in writing.” In the process of investigation, “We arrived at the conclusion that these events were known to many intelligence services from many countries. This was known to the police, to a large number of people, who would privately say, ‘yes, I am aware of that,’ but who, for the sake of political opportunism, would decide to remain silent. What has shocked me is that most of the facts in this report were known to a large number of organizations, and that there was a silence about it until this day.”
Finding witnesses willing to talk was not an easy task. It was well known that in the Hague trial of former KLA commander Ramush Haradinaj, who at that time was prime minister, several prosecution witnesses were murdered and many more threatened. While on trial, Haradinaj was released from prison, and then later acquitted for “lack of evidence.” He is once again on trial, but this is something of an empty gesture, and he is almost certain to be acquitted again.
Nor was Haradinaj’s case unique regarding the silencing of witnesses, as anyone willing to speak against the criminal activities of the Kosovo leadership faces threats, intimidation, and violence. “I saw fear, even terror, when I asked [potential witnesses] about these matters,” Marty announced at his press conference. “In the present circumstances, witnesses feel they cannot talk. They feel threatened.”
At one time the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) investigated allegations of organ trafficking, briefly visiting the K. House. As Marty’s report indicates, the ICTY “hastened to assert publicly that no leads of any kind had been found. The physical samples collected at the scene were subsequently destroyed by the ICTY, after having been photographed.” Marty adds, “We must permit ourselves to express astonishment that such a step was taken.” Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the ICTY at the time, claims she was “prevented” from bringing the case to trial. One can assume that this means pressure was applied by powerful international backers of the tribunal.
The destruction of evidence by the ICTY in the organ trafficking case was not an isolated incident. My contacts with the Belgrade war crimes committee told me in 1999 and 2000 that they had provided voluminous first-hand evidence to the ICTY of horrific crimes of torture at the prisoner of war camp at Lora, in Split, Croatia. A follow-up inquiry by the war crimes committee met with the response from the ICTY that it did not have such evidence. Later on, the Croatian prosecutor in Split wanted to open an investigation into crimes committed at Lora, and contacted the ICTY. The prosecutor was told that the ICTY had no evidence on Lora in their possession. In other words, the ICTY had either destroyed the evidence it had been given or lied about it.
Despite an abundance of evidence against them, Kosovo’s leaders continue to act with impunity, Marty reports, due to “two shocking dynamics.” First, by “eliminating, or intimidating into silence, the majority of the potential and actual witnesses against them (both enemies and erstwhile allies), using violence, threats, blackmail, and protection rackets, and second, faltering political will on the part of the international community to effectively prosecute the former leaders of the KLA.”
At the end of 2008, the European Union took over some of the justicial functions from its predecessor, ostensibly the United Nations, but in reality NATO. Marty discloses that the UN-NATO overseers carried out “little or no detailed investigation.” Records were incomplete or lost, and they had failed to conduct witness interviews.
Marty’s report calls on the European Union in Kosovo to investigate criminal activities in Kosovo. It remains to be seen whether anything will come of that, and it is still the case that Kosovo’s leadership has powerful international backers who are more interested in strategic geopolitical considerations than in justice.
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley announced that while the rule of law is important, the “UN and ICTY investigated the charges of organ trafficking in 2004 and decided then not to take any action.” It was his way of dismissing Marty’s report without acknowledging that the ICTY’s investigation was at best perfunctory before it was completely squelched. “At this point, since any individual anywhere in the world is innocent until proven otherwise, [Thaci] is the current prime minister, and we will continue to work with that government,” Crowley added. “I don’t think it’s going to change fundamentally U.S.-Kosovo relations. I mean, they’re based on our mutual interest, not on specific personalities.”
Crowley’s point about any individual being innocent until proven guilty can only be interpreted ironically, given how U.S. and British officials repeated the wildest stories handed to them by the KLA before and during the Kosovo War, the bulk of which were later proven untrue. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence reports provide ample evidence of criminality by the Kosovo leadership. The most likely outcome of Marty’s investigation is that it will sink like a stone in water, briefly causing mild ripples and then never to be heard from again. Already the matter has faded from the news.
Originally published on Swans