Amnesty International Report 2000 - Yugoslavia, Federal Republic of

Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Head of state: Slobodan Milosevic
Head of government: Momir Bulatovic
Capital: Belgrade
Population: 10.6 million
Official language: Serbian
Death penalty: retentionist

The armed conflict between the Serbian and Yugoslav forces, and armed ethnic Albanians of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) reached its climax between March and June after NATO intervened with air attacks against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Gross human rights violations on a large scale by Serbian police and paramilitary units and by the Yugoslav army drove around 850,000 ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo, creating a regional refugee crisis. Extrajudicial executions, "disappearances", arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, forcible expulsions and the deliberate destruction of homes were widespread and systematic. There were also reports of rape or other sexual violence against ethnic Albanian women. According to independent estimates, at least 500 civilians were killed by NATO. There were concerns as to whether NATO took sufficient precautions in selecting targets and executing its attacks so as to minimize civilian casualties; AI considered that NATO forces may have violated international humanitarian law. After the withdrawal of Serbian and Yugoslav forces from Kosovo in June, there were widespread human rights abuses by armed ethnic Albanians, many of them belonging to, or representing themselves as members of, the KLA. The victims were Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanians accused of "collaboration" with the Serbian authorities, or activists in moderate political parties. Hundreds of people were unlawfully killed or abducted and, partly as a result of these attacks, more than half of the non-Albanian population had fled Kosovo by the end of 1999. Human rights violations occurred throughout the rest of the FRY. Hundreds of anti-government demonstrators were beaten by police. Opposition activists, independent journalists and conscientious objectors were arrested and imprisoned.

The Kosovo crisis

For many years demands, expressed largely through peaceful means by ethnic Albanians, for autonomy and independence for Kosovo had been met with routine torture or ill-treatment by police and the incarceration of prisoners of conscience. In the 1990s, frustration with the political situation led to the formation of the KLA, which sought Kosovo's secession through force. By early 1998 the situation had deteriorated into armed conflict. At the beginning of 1999 a cease-fire was in place, but was growing steadily weaker. Small-scale attacks on Serbian targets by the KLA continued to be met with excessive force by the Serbian police. The killing of 45 ethnic Albanians at Racak village by police at the end of January led to intense diplomatic pressure and renewed threats of armed intervention by NATO. Citing violence by the Serbian and Yugoslav forces and the FRY's refusal to sign up to a peace plan, NATO ordered air strikes against the FRY which commenced on 24 March.

Mass expulsions during the NATO bombing campaign

The Yugoslav leadership responded to the NATO action with an upsurge in violence against the civilian ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo and new offensives against the KLA. The Yugoslav army took part in the actions in Kosovo, but human rights violations were perpetrated primarily by Serbian police and paramilitaries who operated alongside them. A systematic program to expel the civilian population began in the first days of the NATO campaign. Extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention, "disappearances", beatings, rape, and the burning of houses and shops were used to terrorize the population into flight. Serbian forces systematically directed people from western and northern Kosovo towards the Albanian or Macedonian borders, allowing them through or stopping them at will.

Extrajudicial executions

Thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians were killed by police, paramilitaries or soldiers between 24 March and 10 June. The victims appeared to have been targeted for suspected connections with the KLA, for their political activities, or for links with international organizations. Men of military age were widely regarded as suspects and many were killed shortly after coming under the control of Serbian police or paramilitaries.

  • Prominent lawyer and human rights activist Bajram Kelmendi and his two sons, one of whom was only 16 years old, were taken from their house in Pristina by police on the night of 24/25 March. They were found shot dead two days later.
  • On 27 March Serbian forces overran KLA fighters defending the village of Kladernica, near Srbica (Skënderaj); ethnic Albanian civilians fled into the surrounding hills. Witnesses described the killings of around 30 civilians by Serbian forces. In the nearby village of Izbica, most men of military age had fled before Serbian forces moved into the village the following day. Houses in the village were set on fire and several bodies, apparently of elderly people who had been unable to flee, were later found in the ruins. Witnesses described how scores of men, including the young and elderly, were separated from the women and shot. Some 150 people were believed to have been killed, although it was impossible to confirm whether all were non-combatants.


At least 2,000, perhaps many more, ethnic Albanians, the majority of whom were believed to have fallen into the hands of Serbian police or paramilitaries between March and June, were unaccounted for at the end of 1999. Relatives and witnesses of the "disappeared" feared that some had been killed shortly after their arrest. Subsequent discoveries of bodies and exhumations of mass graves confirmed these fears in a number of cases.

  • In the town of Djakovica (Gjakovë) police arrested large numbers of ethnic Albanian men in house-to-house searches. Most were taken to places of detention where many were tortured or ill-treated. Although some were released or later confirmed to be held in prison, hundreds of people from the area remained unaccounted for at the end of 1999.

Sexual violence against ethnic Albanian women

There were allegations of rape and sexual violence by Serbian police or paramilitaries against ethnic Albanian women. The need to protect victims and witnesses meant that the full extent of the abuses could not be determined.

  • In April Serbian forces took a village near Suva Reka (Suhareka); only women, children and older men remained in the village. The elderly men "disappeared" amid fears that they were killed. The women and children were kept in three houses from which women were taken out repeatedly over several days. Three women testified that they had been raped, while statements from others indicated that there were many more victims.

NATO's bombing campaign

Despite NATO claims that it mounted the "most accurate bombing campaign in history", AI had serious concerns about several attacks which may have breached international law.

NATO gave only general assurances that every effort had been made to avoid civilian casualties and did not provide substantive answers to AI's questions on specific incidents, nor any indication of whether investigations were being conducted. Despite repeated requests, NATO failed to provide details of the rules of engagement and other relevant instructions, which AI requested in order to allow an assessment of whether they complied with international humanitarian law.

  • On 12 April a train carrying civilian passengers was twice hit by missiles launched by a NATO airplane during an attack on a railway bridge at Grdelica, reportedly killing at least 12 people. The incident called into question whether the pilot adhered to fundamental principles of humanitarian law which state that an attack should be cancelled or suspended if it becomes clear that the objective is not a military one or may cause disproportionate loss of civilian life.
  • On 23 April NATO bombed the Serbian state television building in Belgrade killing 15 people, all of them apparently civilians. NATO justified the attack in the context of its policy to "disrupt the national command network and to degrade the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's propaganda apparatus". However, even if the station could have been considered a military target – which NATO failed to demonstrate – serious questions remained as to why precautions were not taken or warnings given to avoid killing civilians.

Trials and imprisonment of ethnic Albanians

In June the FRY authorities acknowledged that they were holding some 2,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians on "terrorism"-related charges; some were prisoners of conscience. The majority had been detained in Kosovo and moved to prisons in Serbia. Most had either been sentenced following unfair trials or were under investigation in a new series of trials. There was evidence that they had been tortured or ill-treated in order to extract confessions and that for this and other reasons, they were not receiving fair trials. There were further concerns about the welfare of the prisoners, including complaints of inadequate food and healthcare for prisoners with medical problems. Some 300 prisoners were released between July and December after the charges against them were dropped.

  • Flora Brovina, a doctor from Pristina, was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment by a court in Nis in December. Reports of her trial indicated that it was seriously flawed and that charges of her having been involved in "terrorism" were not substantiated. She was a prisoner of conscience.

Abuses in Kosovo after the withdrawal of Serbian and Yugoslav forces

In mid-June huge numbers of non-Albanians fled Kosovo with the withdrawing Serbian and Yugoslav forces. KLA members and other armed ethnic Albanians, who frequently claimed KLA membership, commenced widespread and almost daily attacks on Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanians accused of "collaboration" who remained. Houses were burned to force occupants to leave and to discourage their return. People were abducted and questioned; ill-treatment and torture of detainees were routine.

Hundreds of people who were believed to have been abducted remained unaccounted for at the end of 1999. A few of those abducted were later found dead. There were also reports of Serbian or Romani women being raped by ethnic Albanians. According to UN estimates, which were generally regarded as optimistic, 50 per cent of the non-Albanian population had fled Kosovo by the end of 1999.

Kosovo policing and the judicial system

The NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force struggled to maintain law and order. The UN interim police force, which was to take over policing from KFOR until the formation of a new local force, was desperately short-staffed since less than 1,900 of the promised 6,000 officers had been seconded by governments by the end of the year.

Policing, which like most aspects of civilian administration in Kosovo was the responsibility of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), therefore continued to rely heavily on KFOR. UNMIK was also responsible for re-establishing the judicial system, but it was hampered by lack of resources, political pressure on judges, and the strain of trying to re-establish a multi-ethnic judiciary.

Refugees and displaced persons

Between April and June, some 500,000 Albanian refugees were forcibly expelled from Kosovo to Albania, about 350,000 to Macedonia and a smaller number to Montenegro. On several occasions thousands of asylum-seekers had their journeys blocked when the Macedonian authorities closed the border. The Macedonian authorities used closures and restrictions at the border to maintain pressure on other governments, particularly NATO members, to accept refugees. Governments were generally reluctant to share responsibility for the Kosovo refugees, who were given only temporary protection in most countries. The majority of the ethnic Albanian refugees in neighbouring countries had returned to Kosovo by the end of August.

Serbs and Roma who fled or were expelled into Serbia as a result of the actions of the KLA or other armed Albanians found themselves blocked by the Serbian authorities who tried to restrict their movements and prevent them from reaching Belgrade. A Kosovo Serb who succeeded in reaching Belgrade was imprisoned for 30 days after he demonstrated about the plight of displaced Kosovo Serbs.

Arrests for violations of international humanitarian law

KFOR troops in Kosovo arrested Serbs and Roma whom they suspected of involvement in the unlawful killing of ethnic Albanian civilians or other violations of international humanitarian law between March and June. The investigation of the suspects was taken over by investigating magistrates and prosecutors of the interim judicial system which was established in Kosovo from July onwards. Around 30 people were under investigation at the end of 1999.

The federal and Serbian governments failed to cooperate with the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The Tribunal issued an indictment in May accusing the Federal President, Slobodan Milosevic, and four members of the Serbian and federal governments of murder, persecution and deportation perpetrated by forces under their control between January and May 1999.

State of emergency

On 25 March the federal authorities declared a state of emergency as a result of NATO's attack. The declaration, and decrees issued in conjunction with it, widened police powers and restricted the right to freedom of assembly. The penalties for avoiding call-up and desertion were automatically increased to a maximum of 20 years' imprisonment. Most of the emergency decrees were lifted in June.

Conscientious objectors

Thousands of men, including conscientious objectors, who failed to comply with call-up regulations while the state of emergency was in force, were prosecuted and faced the increased penalties. Despite propaganda from NATO encouraging these men not to fight, after the conflict they had difficulty in obtaining protection as refugees in other countries.

Independent journalists and opposition activists

In the aftermath of the Yugoslav withdrawal from Kosovo, opposition party supporters, trade unionists and students demonstrated in towns throughout Serbia calling for the resignation of President Slobodan Milosevic. The demonstrations became more frequent from September onwards and were often allowed by the authorities. However, on several occasions police used truncheons to break up what started as peaceful demonstrations. Hundreds of demonstrators were beaten in the course of several such incidents. Independent or opposition publications or printing houses were often given huge fines which threatened their viability. Several journalists were prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

  • Bogoljub Arsenijevic, an opposition activist from Valjevo, was severely beaten in police custody following his arrest in August. In October he went on hunger strike in protest at inadequate medical treatment.
  • Newspaper editor Slavko Curuvija and two of his journalists were sentenced to five months' imprisonment in March for "spreading false information" after being accused of associating a Serbian government minister with a murder in an article. Slavko Curuvija was murdered in April amid claims that the killing had been ordered by the authorities. No one had been charged with his murder by the end of the year. The two other journalists were called to serve their sentences in July, but reportedly went into hiding. If imprisoned they would be prisoners of conscience.

AI's actions

AI issued a series of appeals, statements and reports on human rights abuses in Kosovo. Researchers in the field carried out interviews with refugees, other victims and witnesses, lawyers, and representatives of the local and international organizations. AI issued recommendations and lobbied governments connected to or influential in the Kosovo crisis.

AI country reports

  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: A decade of unheeded warnings – Amnesty International's concerns in Kosovo, May 1989 to March 1999, volumes 1 and 2 (AI Index: EUR 70/039/99 and EUR 70/040/99)
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Amnesty International memorandum to the UN Security Council (AI Index: EUR 70/049/99)
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Amnesty International's concerns relating to NATO bombings (AI Index: EUR 70/069/99)
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Kosovo): Killings in the Izbica area (AI Index: EUR 70/079/99)
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Kosovo): After tragedy, justice? (AI Index: EUR 70/080/99)
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Amnesty International's recommendations for the protection of human rights in post-conflict peace building and reconstruction in Kosovo (AI Index: EUR 70/091/99)
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: A broken circle – "disappeared" and abducted in Kosovo province (AI Index: 70/106/99)
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Kosovo): Smrekovnica prison – a regime of torture and ill-treatment leaves hundreds unaccounted for (AI Index: EUR 70/107/99)
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: The forgotten resisters – the plight of conscientious objectors to military service after the conflict in Kosovo (AI Index: EUR 70/111/99)
  • Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Amnesty International urges KLA leader to stop human rights abuses (AI Index: EUR 70/112/99)

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.