Who is K144?

Geoffrey Nice

  • Inhuman Treatment of People and Illicit Trafficking in Human Organs in Kosovo by Dick Marty
    Council of Europe, draft report, December 2010

At the end of last year it was reported that in the late 1990s Hashim Thaci, the prime minister of Kosovo, together with other Kosovo Albanian political leaders, had traded in the organs of Serb prisoners held in neighbouring Albania. Some papers implied that organs had been harvested while the prisoners were still alive. The allegations were based on a report commissioned by the Council of Europe and written by Dick Marty, a Swiss senator. They are quite distinct from the charges brought against several people currently on trial in Kosovo, accused of swindling kidney donors of several different nationalities out of money promised to them for giving up their organs. The criminal groups responsible in that case are said to have connections with the political leadership, but it’s unfortunate that Marty allows the two different sets of allegations to seem to lend support to each other.

Thaci was the leader of the Kosovo delegation at the unsuccessful Rambouillet peace conference in February 1999. At that point he was in charge of the political wing of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and he was chosen to go to Rambouillet in preference to the Kosovan president, Ibrahim Rugova (who was soon shipped out to Italy by the Serbian regime ‘for his own good’). Thaci’s presence at Rambouillet made clear the shift in Kosovan politics, from the non-violent resistance advocated by Rugova to the KLA’s armed struggle. The US-backed KLA leaders represented a younger generation of Kosovo Albanians, many of whom had left for Western Europe in the early 1990s, often sending back part of their earnings to Kosovo to provide for the coming armed struggle. Thaci was one of them. By 1993 he was a student in Switzerland, helping to found the Peoples’ Movement of Kosovo.

At Rambouillet, it wasn’t hard to see what the US was demanding of the two warring parties: the Serbs were being told ‘sign or we bomb you,’ and the Kosovans ‘sign or we drop you.’ Thaci understood the political reality even if he had to get the agreement of his fellow terrorists/freedom fighters/ irredentists back home before he could sign. The KLA knew it couldn’t risk losing the support of the US and Nato, and Thaci signed, on condition that a referendum on a permanent political settlement would take place within three years. Any such referendum, which would be bound to lead to independence for Kosovo, was anathema to the Serb delegation: they refused to sign. The failure to reach an agreement led to the Nato intervention. The objective was to forestall a humanitarian catastrophe: more than 200,000 civilians had been displaced by December 1998. By the end of the conflict a million people had been displaced and at least 10,000 Kosovo Albanians killed. Kosovo became an international protectorate, governed first by the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and later by the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX).

The KLA fragmented into several factions, one of them led by Thaci. Another was led by Ramush Haradinaj, a former military commander who became prime minister in 2004. Haradinaj had been in office for only a few months when he was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and surrendered himself, to be tried for and eventually acquitted of crimes allegedly committed against Serbs and ‘disloyal’ Kosovo Albanians. He wasn’t the only politically prominent former KLA leader to be indicted: Fatmir Limaj was also tried and acquitted. Thaci was never indicted. Nor was he called as a witness by the prosecution or defence in any trial held at the ICTY. The grave charges made against him, including the many made by Milosevic at his own trial, have never been answered in a court.

The organ harvesting allegations first emerged in 2008, in Madame Prosecutor, Carla del Ponte’s account of her time as chief prosecutor at the ICTY (where I was one of her colleagues). She drew on various sources, none of them identifiable. Executions and organ removals, she claimed, took place at or just after the end of the Kosovo conflict in June 1999. How reliable are these allegations? On what evidence are they based? No single victim has yet been identified, as far as I know. Are they, perhaps, part of a media campaign to obstruct the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state?

Stories in the Serbian press suggest that many of these allegations came from a witness known as K144, although del Ponte never refers to this source in her book (and nor does Marty, directly). According to media accounts, K144 has first-hand knowledge of the execution of Serb prisoners whose kidneys were then removed for sale. The Serbs have given the impression, without clearly stating it, that K144 was a ‘protected witness’ of the ICTY. Witnesses summoned for the part of Milosevic’s trial that dealt with Kosovo were indeed known by ‘K’ numbers – but they stopped around K116. If K144 is a genuine pseudonym how did the Serbian press get to know about it and from whom? Who is K144? The ICTY website has entries for many ‘K’ witnesses, but nothing for K144.

According to one newspaper story, K144 claims that there was

a trade with vital organs of the kidnapped Kosovo Serbs conducted under direct supervision of Hashim Thaci and KLA leaders with the consent of Albanian state officials … Doctors would examine all the prisoners and with information from Italy of which organ was needed would decide who would go under a knife … The prisoners were anaesthetised, their organs were extracted, and then they would most often be left to die by being taken off the life support … In several cases the younger prisoners, after having one kidney extracted, were sutured and returned with other prisoners … The biggest mass grave with some 100 Serbs was in … Burrel in central Albania.

Burrel had in fact been investigated by the ICTY during Milosevic’s trial in 2003-4 after allegations that Serb prisoners had been maltreated there. No conclusive evidence was discovered, although the ICTY was told that there were faint traces of blood in a building known as the Yellow House and that a few, mostly empty, drug containers had also been found.

If K144 had indeed given a statement of the kind Marty suggests before March 2006 – when the Milosevic trial ended with the accused’s death – I would have known about it because of its possible ramifications for the prosecution case. Other lawyers would have known too and the information would have had to be handed over to Milosevic under tribunal rules. The Serbian newspaper Press has claimed that del Ponte based her allegations on K144’s statement. The ICTY has kept out of the controversy, saying nothing either way.

Another Serb paper, Vecernje Novosti, has recently printed allegations made by a second witness, someone they call ‘Lj.K’, who claims personal knowledge of what happened. According to her, ‘a team of surgeons had been making decisions about the removal of organs. Hearts, bone marrow, corneas, kidneys and livers were removed from the kidnapped victims,’ and the removed organs were transported ‘in special portable refrigerators by private helicopters’. If these accounts have a factual basis one would think that rumours at least would have reached Milosevic from the intelligence services, which fed him information that he deployed remorselessly to attack prosecution witnesses. But he never mentioned any trade in organs.

Marty, like del Ponte, is a Swiss lawyer – a former prosecutor in the canton of Ticino. His report is not, as he admits, a criminal investigation. It attempts a sweeping survey of Albanian clan life and its relationship with organised crime and argues that the 1998-99 conflict was a gangsters’ turf war rather than an insurrection against the Serbs. Organised crime in Kosovo, he asserts, is run by the current political elite, Thaci included. Marty also makes use of his immunity as a representative of the Council of Europe from pursuit for defamation and sets out details of the two organ harvesting schemes – one by surgery on captives, the other by the swindling of donors. He fails to demonstrate any connection between the two, however, beyond the fact that each involved Kosovan politicians. He suggests that the West was so keen to back the Kosovo Albanians that they could get away with anything – even trading in body parts – under the noses of Western observers.

Marty’s report states:

It was in … Fushë-Krujë [a town in Albania] that the process of ‘filtering’ purportedly reached its end-point, and the small, select group of KLA captives who were brought this far met their death. There are strong indications, from source testimonies we have obtained, that … some of these captives became aware of the ultimate fate that awaited them [and] are said to have pleaded with their captors to be spared the fate of being ‘chopped into pieces’ … When they were physically examined by men referred to as ‘doctors’, the captives must have been put on notice that they were being treated as some form of medical commodities … Captives were killed, usually by a gunshot to the head, before being operated on to remove one or more of their organs … This was principally a trade in ‘cadaver kidneys’, i.e. the kidneys were extracted posthumously; it was not a set of advanced surgical procedures requiring controlled clinical conditions and, for example, the extensive use of anaesthetic … 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.

‘In the interests of balance’, Marty admits that some reports have ‘tended to dramatise the facts unduly … we have found no basis for the allegation that certain victims had one kidney removed before being “sewn up” again.’ That detail always seemed fanciful, like the accounts of war criminals in Bosnia playing football with severed heads, for which similarly there is no hard evidence.

Marty doesn’t explain why this expensive process – doctors and intermediaries would have had to be paid enough to ensure they kept quiet, helicopters would have had to be hired – would have seemed a better idea than, say, the lucrative trade in smuggled tobacco in which Montenegro and Serbia as well as Kosovo have long been involved, or the drug trade.

Given all this, has Thaci succeeded in avoiding justice? Other KLA leaders have had to stand trial and a few of them are to be re-tried, including Haradinaj, who is accused of witness tampering at his first trial. One suggested explanation for why Thaci was not charged is that Madeleine Albright ordered the tribunal not to indict him; del Ponte says there was insufficient evidence against him. So why did his name suddenly become attached to the allegations about the organ trade, probably the least plausible of the many he has faced? Why does del Ponte claim that he could not have been tried at the ICTY? Executing and butchering prisoners of war during or immediately after an armed conflict would certainly qualify as a war crime. The cut-off date for new indictments at the tribunal was January 2004, but something as serious as these alleged crimes might have been given special dispensation by the UN. The evidence should, in any event, have been dealt with by the tribunal and not published in a memoir. Appearing two years after del Ponte’s book, the Marty report doesn’t go beyond the rumours she made public and which Serb websites and newspapers have been repeating and embellishing ever since. Marty keeps his sources hidden for fear – we are told – that they might be harmed by the Kosovans involved or even by Albanians more generally.

Thaci himself says that these rumours ‘will not hold him back’, and that the accusations were made by a ‘network which opposes Kosovo’s independence’. In an interview with the Pristina-based newspaper Express, he said he was ‘accustomed to such accusations’ and believes that ‘Marty was not alone in this process, but rather that there was an “anti-independence club” behind him.’ Might he be right? Marty has recently taken care to ‘clarify’ his findings, saying in an interview that his report made no claim that Thaci was personally involved in the organ trafficking; but in reality the allegations stand, and the damage has already been done.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, soon after Thaci became prime minister, and began to lobby for the support of the two-thirds majority of UN member states needed to secure formal recognition. Last July the ICJ in The Hague ruled against Serbia’s challenge to the legality of any declaration of independence. Kosovo is on its way to becoming a UN member: 74 states already recognise it. Is Serbia using these allegations against Thaci in an attempt to block it? The Serbian president, Boris Tadic, said publicly a few weeks ago that ‘Serbia has been waiting for years for such a report’ – i.e. one that didn’t blame the Serbs for all the terrible things that happened in the former Yugoslavia.

These new allegations against Thaci need to be dealt with, however. There is a parallel with the position of Milo Djukanovic, who has been either premier or president of Montenegro almost continuously since 1991. As a young man he was heavily involved with Milosevic. Between 2002 and 2009 he was the subject of an investigation into tobacco smuggling by the Italian authorities, and it is still hanging over him. Montenegro, like Kosovo, can readily be trashed as a criminal state; also like Kosovo, it seeks membership of the EU. Djukanovic has just announced that he will stand down and cease to hold political office. This, some say, is intended to ease Montenegro’s entry into organisations that are prepared to negotiate with the likes of Djukanovic or Thaci when their states are emerging from conflict but want afterwards to deal with someone less compromised. Thaci might well have to follow the same path as Djukanovic if the current rumours continue to circulate.