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Kosovo: Excessive use of force against activists July 13, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Kosovo.
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EU Justice Mission Should Set Independent Review of Use of Force Against Activists

The European Union Mission in Kosovo should set an independent inquiry into a Kosovo police operation on June 12, 2010, in which riot police appeared to have used excessive force, Human Rights watch said today. The operation began as an attempt to arrest a political activist, Albin Kurti, leader of the Self-Determination Movement (Vetevendosje).

The episode, part of which was captured on video, began after Vetevendosje held a news conference to celebrate its fifth anniversary, during which Kurti announced the group’s intention to participate as a party in upcoming general elections. Two police officers arrived at the group’s headquarters in central Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, with a warrant for Kurti, based on charges relating to violence following a 2007 demonstration by the group. The police were carrying out an arrest warrant issued by the European Union Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), which has responsibility for oversight of policing and justice in Kosovo.

“The footage of this operation makes for disturbing viewing,” said Wanda Troszczynska-van Genderen, Western Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “An independent investigation into this incident is vital to guarantee the credibility of the police and to protect the rule of law.”

The incident led about a dozen members of Kurti’s group to seek treatment for injuries they said were caused by police use of force or a spray that burned them. One had a serious neck injury.

The two officers who arrived with the warrant were refused admission. About an hour later, a large group of police officers arrived in full riot gear – body armor, helmets with visors, and batons. Video footage posted by Vetevendosje members on YouTube appears to show officers breaking through the fence into the yard outside the office and throwing what appears to be an incapacitating spray inside the yard where the protesters gathered.

The video does not show what happened inside the office. It shows six members of the group, including Kurti, being led away in handcuffs, some of them appearing to resist. After the police leave, the video shows members of the crowd overturning a car.

Members of the group allege that the police beat them with batons and used the spray against them as they resisted arrest inside the office. In a video interview in Albanian, one member of the group who says he was present during the operation and describes being hit with a baton and sprayed with teargas.

Members of the group who were present during the arrest told the Kosovo media that some of those inside the office suffered eye, head, or arm injuries. Photographs seen by Human Rights Watch are consistent with those allegations. Those who were taken to the hospital were treated for burns to their face and arms. In a video interview in Albanian, a doctor in the hospital describes light burns to the face and arms caused by a spray.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that authorities shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. The Basic Principles provide that if the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, then the authorities must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may be used only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The Basic Principles also call for an effective reporting and review process, especially in cases of death and serious injury.

“The Kosovo Police Service has serious questions to answer about this arrest operation,” Troszczynska-van Genderen said. “The police should open their own internal investigation, but an independent review is also vital for transparency and accountability.”

The EULEX arrest warrant against Kurti relates to an ongoing trial that he has refused to attend. He is charged with participating in a group that allegedly obstructed officials carrying out official duties and with “inciting resistance” during a violent Vetevendosje protest on February 10, 2007. During the protest, two participants were killed by rubber bullets fired by Romanian police officers participating in what was then the UN police force.

After Kosovo declared independence, EULEX took over the case from the UN mission in December 2008. In January 2010, EULEX announced that it would re-start Kurti’s trial, and it resumed in February. On June 14, the mixed judicial panel involving EULEX judges sentenced Albin Kurti to nine months in prison. He has been released, since he already served over nine months while previously held in detention.

The Council for Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms (CDHRF), a local human rights organization, has condemned the June 12 incident, saying that excessive force was used. No official reaction has been issued by the Kosovo police, EULEX, or the Ombudsperson Institution – an independent human rights body for Kosovo.

“Whatever the merits of the indictment, the planning and implementation of this police operation need to be thoroughly examined to determine why so much force appears to have been used,” said Troszczynska-van Genderen. “The EU mission needs to make sure that its operations meet international standards, and minimize the risk of violence and injury.”

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