Some ethnic Albanian families with relatives imprisoned in Serbia have secured their release by bribing Serbian officials with amounts of more than $10,000 per prisoner, according to Western officials, prisoner organizations and families who paid the money.
The money has sometimes been passed through ethnic Albanian intermediaries who live in Serbia beyond the provincial borders of Kosovo. On other occasions, it has been given to Serbian lawyers at meetings in the neutral zone at the border between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. And in some cases it has been deposited directly in Western European bank accounts, according to the officials.
Within hours or days after the money is exchanged, the prisoners are released, they said.
"People here refer to the prisoners as hostages, and this only reinforces that perception," said one Western official in Pristina.
The official noted that the Serbian Ministry of Justice has long claimed that the prisoners are being held on legitimate charges and thus are entitled to due process of law. Despite these assertions, he said, "this is happening on a wide scale and it violates every right or standard." He said there are cases where "$10,800 was deposited in Austrian bank accounts."
Western officials and family members said they are unsure whether the money is directed only to prison officials or also to investigating judges, who normally must make a finding that a prisoner charged with a crime can be released.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which refused to comment on the practice, there are nearly 1,900 ethnic Albanian prisoners in Serbia. The Red Cross surveyed 12 Serbian prisons following publication of a list of ethnic Albanian prisoners by the Serbian Ministry of Justice this summer.
About one-third of the 1,900 have been sentenced to prison terms following court proceedings. It appears that only those who have not been sentenced can buy their way out of prison, according to the Association of Political Prisoners here.
The association said it is inundated with requests from families seeking to pay for the release of loved ones. But it noted that most families cannot afford the price.
Since NATO-led peacekeepers entered Kosovo June 12, two large groups have been released from Serbian prisons: 166 on July 25 and 54 on Oct. 5. Small groups of two or three prisoners were also released each week in August and September.
Western officials said they are certain some of the most recent group of 54 bought their way out, as have a number of those who were released individually. But they have no exact figure on the number of people released for cash because some families refuse to disclose that they paid.
"There is some shame that they did it," said Shukrie Rexha, an activist with the prisoners' association.
Western officials also said families have secured release of prisoners held at a number of different facilities in Serbia, suggesting that the practice is widespread within the judicial system.
Nijazi Hajdari, 49, from the Kosovo city of Urosevac, was arrested on May 9 and accused of espionage along with two other local political activists, Fadil Kallaba, 48, and Sabit Hoxha, 45. All were leaders of the local branch of the Democratic League of Kosovo, a moderate ethnic Albanian political party.
In interviews, they said they had been compiling information for the party on Serbian military movements, as well as documenting killings and burnings in the city, when they were arrested. All three were dubbed "NATO spies" and featured in stories in the Serbian media in late May after a court appearance at a prison in eastern Kosovo.
On June 12, they were moved to a prison in Vranje, just over the border from Kosovo. In early September, the Hajdari and Hoxha families said, they each paid the equivalent of $6,520 in German marks to an ethnic Albanian intermediary to secure the men's release. The Kallaba family dealt directly with a Serbian lawyer and paid $4,890, suggesting that the Albanian may have taken a $1,630 cut. None of the families would identify the intermediaries for fear of putting them in danger.
On Sept. 9, the three were escorted out of the Vranje prison and into a car where the ethnic Albanian intermediary waited. They were driven directly to Kosovo.
"It's corruption," said Hajdari, whose family spent weeks borrowing the money to get him out. "Everything is under the table."
The issue of prisoners in Serbia has caused enormous anguish among the local population here. Most prisoners were arrested during NATO's 78-day bombing campaign and were whisked away in the final hours and days before NATO entered Kosovo, technically a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's main republic.
The association, which conducted a survey of missing relatives, said 7,000 ethnic Albanians are unaccounted for. Some, they said, have probably been killed and their bodies disposed of, but they believe that many more than the official number of 1,900 are in prison in Serbia.
Serbs are also extracting cash from prisoners' families in other ways. Under Serbian law, only prisoners who have been sentenced have a formal right to visits from relatives. Families of those awaiting trial must appeal to an investigating judge for a visit; in practice that has meant that most families don't see their loved ones.
At the border between Kosovo and government-controlled areas of Serbia, just north of Podujevo, there is a brisk trade between desperate families and Serbian lawyers promising to pass messages to prisoners for a fee. Two weeks ago, according to the association, 219 families each paid about $300 to a Serbian lawyer from Nis who promised to visit prisoners and report back that he could relay messages to them.