Seven months after NATO halted its bombing campaign against Serbia, the fate of thousands of Kosovar Albanian prisoners remains unresolved. Many of those taken to Serbia proper before, during and immediately after the conflict are not even charged with criminal wrongdoing.
A prominent doctor and human rights leader has been sentenced to a long prison term on flimsy charges. Kosovo Albanian students in Belgrade are being tried and tortured on charges of "terrorism," and a lawyer representing a number of prisoners recently had to buy his way out of custody after being held for more than a week.
The Serbian justice ministry admitted last summer to holding roughly 2,000 prisoners, and the International Committee of the Red Cross attested to slightly more. A U.N. official said 5,000 are incarcerated, and the local Society for Political Prisoners estimated as many as 7,000.
There are no misconceptions about the severe conditions these prisoners likely endure -- especially since NATO troops in Kosovo discovered many Serb-run police stations that doubled as torture centers. Some of those who have been released -- only some 400 thus far -- can attest to the horrific conditions of the prisoners.
Flora Brovina, a doctor, poet and human rights activist sentenced last month to 12 years in prison for supposedly aiding the Kosovo Liberation Army, has been mistreated in prison. She stated at her trial that she was thankful she had been beaten "only once." One of the prisoners released has since died as a result of the savage beatings inflicted by Serbian police.
Prisoners such as Brovina are the lucky ones, though: At least Serbia admits to their incarceration. Many of the families of those missing have fallen prey to unscrupulous people who purport to have information about their loved ones, or even offer to gain their freedom -- for large sums of money, naturally.
Why should the international community make this issue a priority when there are so many other areas of Balkan policy that need urgent attention? Partly because of the brutality with which these prisoners are being treated and partly because securing the release of these prisoners and resolving the fate of the missing will contribute to the social stability of Kosovo.
Many Kosovar refugees returned to find their fields sown with mass graves and mines or their relatives and neighbors executed. The grief of some surviving Kosovars has driven them to bloody revenge and many times to cold-blooded murder -- often of innocent, elderly or infirm Serbs who could not conceivably be guilty of the "ethnic cleansing" that brought NATO intervention.
While the brutal killings conducted by Serb forces will not be forgotten, the prisoner issue is the one critical obstacle to future coexistence between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs that can most easily be removed. Every prisoner has family, friends and acquaintances distressed and radicalized by their incarceration. The unresolved fate of the thousands of missing feeds the abhorrent wave of violent intolerance that has swept over Kosovo.
Serbian leader and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic has recognized that keeping a large stable of Kosovo Albanian prisoners maintains a high frustration level in Kosovo, making the jobs of international peacekeepers that much more difficult.
With the end of the war, the West clearly has little remaining leverage over Milosevic, short of rewarding him with reconstruction funds or lifting sanctions -- both of which alliance leaders correctly have ruled out. But while there is no obvious road map for freeing the Serb-held prisoners, several options are available to the West.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke should actively seek partners to push through a U.N. Security Council resolution. while the United States chairs the council this month. Peacekeeping troops and the U.N. refugee agency could act as the post-transfer vetters -- distinguishing true criminals (who ought to remain incarcerated -- in Kosovo rather than Serbia) from political detainees.
It is critical that the United States, the European Union, Canada and as many other democracies as possible coordinate their policies to exert maximum pressure on Belgrade to release the prisoners. Milosevic has long relied on divergent policies among the Western allies to help diffuse pressure and maintain power. Now that he is finally a defeated and indicted war criminal, such disunity is unconscionable. There are no guarantees of success, but the costs of trying to free the Kosovar prisoners are minimal. Doing so would bolster other critical Western efforts in the Balkans, and could bring freedom for these forgotten victims or the Kosovo war.
Kurt Bassuener is associate director of the Balkan Action Council. Eric A. Witte is program coordinator at the International Crisis Group.