Kosovo is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution and laws provide for an elected unicameral parliament, which in turn elects a president, whose choice of prime minister the parliament must approve. The country last held parliamentary elections in June 2014, which international observers considered free and fair. Parliament elected Hashim Thaci as president on February 26; his inauguration was on April 8. The EU’s Rule-of-Law Mission (EULEX), which monitors police and the justice sector, continued to perform some executive functions, with its mission extended until 2018. The EU-facilitated Brussels Dialogue on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia continued. Northern Kosovo judicial structures have yet to be integrated into the national structures following the 2015 justice-sector agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control of the security forces.
One of the most serious human rights problems was the occasionally violent obstruction of parliament by opposition deputies, blocking free debate and the passage of legislation. Endemic government and private-sector corruption coupled with the lack of punishment for corrupt acts remained an important human rights problem. Societal violence and institutional discrimination against members of some religious communities; ethnic minorities; women; persons with disabilities; and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community constituted a third significant area of concern.
Other human rights problems included: reported police mistreatment of detainees; substandard physical conditions combined with drug abuse, corruption, and favoritism in prisons; lengthy pretrial detention and judicial inefficiency resulting in mistrials; and unresolved property restitution claims from the 1998-99 war. There was also intimidation of media by public officials, foreign governments, and criminal elements; restriction of freedom of movement across the Austerlitz Bridge; and violence against displaced persons seeking to return to their homes and those who had already returned. Restrictions on religious freedom included the lack of a registration system, the repeated vandalism of religious property, and restrictions on freedom of worship for Serbian Orthodox pilgrims. Additional human rights problems included domestic violence and discrimination against women; gender-biased sex selection; child abuse; trafficking in persons; discrimination against ethnic minorities, especially Ashkalis, Egyptians, and Roma; inadequate support for persons with disabilities; poor conditions in mental health facilities; sporadic ethnic tensions; and child labor in the informal economy.
The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses in the security services or elsewhere in the government. Many in the opposition, civil society, and the media assumed that senior officials engaged in corruption with impunity.
In its February 26 report, the UN Human Rights Advisory Panel (UNHRAP) criticized the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) for its handling of mass lead poisoning of displaced Roma who were moved into contaminated camps immediately following the war in 1999. UNHRAP faulted UNMIK’s unwillingness to follow the panel’s guidance, resulting in the absence of redress for complainants.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
EULEX and domestic prosecutors continued prosecuting war crimes cases arising from the 1998-99 conflict. While EULEX investigated war crimes, it transferred other cases which had not reached trial to local special prosecutors.
In September a EULEX-majority panel of judges at the country’s Appellate Court rendered final verdicts in the Drenica I and II war crimes cases. The cases included 15 defendants tried for practical reasons in groups of seven and 10 defendants, respectively, with two of the same defendants in both.
The Appellate Court largely upheld the May 2015 Basic Court of Mitrovice/Mitrovica’s verdict in the Drenica I case, convicting three and acquitting four defendants. The Appellate Court upheld the conviction of the former ambassador to Albania, Sylejman Selimi, but reduced his sentence to six years and three months. It acquitted the serving mayor of Skenderaj/Srbica, Sami Lushtaku, of murder. It overturned his previous acquittal for command responsibility for war crimes committed against civilians in a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) detention center and sentenced him to seven years. Lushtaku’s conviction was not final, given the reversal of his acquittal. On November 29, his attorney announced the filing of an appeal with the Supreme Court, noting the conviction was based on the testimony of only one witness. The court upheld the acquittals of Sahit Jashari, Ismet Haxha, Avni Zabeli, Jahir Demaku, and Sabit Geci.
The Appellate Court upheld the original May 2015 conviction of all 10 defendants in the Drenica II case, but reduced some prison terms, sentencing Sylejman Selimi to seven instead of eight years, Isni Thaci to six and a half years instead of seven, and sentencing Jahir Demaku and Zeqir Demaku to six years instead of seven. The Appellate Court confirmed the sentences of three years for parliament member Fadil Demaku, Gllogovc/Glogovac Mayor Nexhat Demaku, and Agim, Driton, Bashkim, and Selman Demaj. Fadil Demaku and Nexhat Demaku’s respective parliamentary mandates were forfeited. The Appellate Court issued Sylejman Selimi and Jahir Demaku, named in both cases, with aggregate sentences of 10 and seven years, respectively. On March 16, Minister of Justice Hajredin Kuci criticized EULEX judges for their decision in the case, calling the EULEX verdict “unjust and absurd” and claiming there was no evidence on which to base a conviction. He expressed confidence that the Court of Appeals would make the “right decision” in this case. EULEX noted the statement could be perceived as intimidation and political interference.
On January 21, a trial panel of EULEX judges at the Basic Court in Mitrovice/Mitrovica convicted Oliver Ivanovic, leader of the Serbia, Democracy, and Justice party of war crimes against civilians and sentenced him to nine years in prison. The court found Ivanovic had encouraged the murder of Kosovo-Albanians by Serb paramilitary forces in 1999. The panel acquitted him of the charge of attempted aggravated murder. The panel heard Ivanovic’s appeal on October 11; as of November 7, it continued to review evidence and testimony.
On May 17, a EULEX-majority panel of the Basic Court of Pristina convicted Enver Sekiraqa and sentenced him to 37 years in prison for inciting the 2007 murder of police officer Triumf Riza. Arben Berisha was previously convicted and serving a 35-year sentence for the crime.
Convicted war criminal Sabit Geci returned to Dubrava prison following an August 12 decision by the Minister of Justice Dhurate Hoxha that ordered all convicted prisoners on extended medical leave to return to correctional facilities. The Ministry of Justice previously suspended Geci’s sentence in October 2015. Geci was found guilty in 2011 of war crimes committed at detention centers in northern Albania and was serving a 15-year and 12-year sentences, respectively.
The EU’s 2016 report stated that the country had fulfilled its remaining obligations related to the establishment of the Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecution Office to investigate allegations of international crimes committed during and after the 1999 conflict. On September 5, the EU announced David Schwendiman, the lead prosecutor of the EU’s Special Investigative Task Force (SITF), would serve as the specialist prosecutor (chief prosecutor) of the newly established Kosovo specialist prosecutor’s office (SPO). Schwendiman was appointed pursuant to the 2015 Kosovo Law on Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office. His appointment marked the formal transition of the former SITF into the independent SPO. The SPO is an independent office for the investigation and prosecution of the crimes within the jurisdiction of the Specialist Chambers, which can issue indictments and try cases, as appropriate, resulting from the evidentiary findings of the SITF. The SITF was established after the 2011 release of the Council of Europe (CoE) report, Inhuman Treatment of People and Illicit Trafficking in Human Organs in Kosovo, on alleged crimes committed by individual KLA leaders during and just after the Kosovo war. The mandate of the SITF is to investigate and, if warranted, prepare cases for prosecution involving serious crimes alleged in the CoE report, including war crimes and organized crimes. The law creating the Specialist Chambers foresaw the creation of a specialist prosecutor’s office with the authority to indict suspects and provides for some proceedings to take place elsewhere in Europe.
On October 17, the Dutch Parliament ratified the February 15 Host State Agreement for the Specialist Chambers, which was ratified by then president Atifete Jahjaga on February 29. As of November 7, a number of organizational steps remained to be completed, including the selection of judges, before Specialist Prosecutor David Schwendiman could finalize charges and file indictments.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances, abductions, or kidnappings.
As of November the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) listed as missing 1,660 persons who disappeared during the 1998-99 conflict and the political violence that followed. Although the ICRC did not distinguish missing persons by ethnic background due to confidentiality restrictions, observers suggested that approximately 70 percent were ethnic Albanians and 30 percent were Serbs, Roma, Ashkalis, Egyptians, Bosniaks, and Montenegrins.
Efforts to recover remains continued with limited results. According to the ICRC, 14 missing persons’ cases were closed during the year, including seven new identifications, two persons located alive, and five cases closed based on a revision of their files. According to the ICRC, six new missing persons’ cases were opened during the year. The government’s Commission on Missing Persons reported that, as of October, EULEX and the government’s Institute of Forensic Medicine conducted 11 field operations and exhumations. Authorities recovered remains from known gravesites that could lead to the identification of additional missing persons. Seven field operations at new sites did not yield any remains, including two in majority-Serb northern municipalities. Based on a prosecutor’s order, an excavation was undertaken at the University of Pristina campus in July, but no human remains were recovered. The government invited forensic experts from Serbia to observe the excavation, which they did. Likewise, the country’s forensic experts observed an excavation in Kizevak at the invitation of the Serbian government; however, works at this site were not yet concluded.
The ICRC-chaired working group on persons unaccounted for in relation to the events in Kosovo in the 1998-2000 period continued to meet, exchanging information and records to help elucidate the fate of the missing. The government’s delegation continued to request a change in the working group’s terms of reference to remove UNMIK from its delegation, to reflect the country’s independence.
As of October the International Commission on Missing Persons received 45 samples from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, resulting in seven new DNA matches. Remains were identified in 38 cases and were re-associated with remains from previously resolved cases.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, but there were some reports that government officials employed them.
The Police Inspectorate of Kosovo (PIK), an independent body within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was responsible for reviewing complaints about police behavior. As of November PIK reviewed 1,246 citizen complaints regarding police conduct. PIK characterized 748 of these as disciplinary violations and forwarded them to the Kosovo Police Professional Standards Unit; PIK judged another 493 complaints to be criminal cases. As of November, 179 police personnel were under investigation, while another 12 cases from 2015 remained under investigation. Allegations of excessive use of force by police in dispersing a demonstration in January 2015 did not result in criminal charges, although prosecutors continued to review information provided by PIK.
On August 8, the Basic Court in Mitrovica convicted a former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander, Xhemshit Krasniqi, for the arrest, illegal detention, violation of bodily integrity and health, and torture of several witnesses and unknown civilians, carried out in 1999 at KLA camps in Kukes and Cahan in Albania as well as in Prizren in Kosovo.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions generally met international standards, but significant problems persisted for prisoners in penitentiaries, specifically, the lack of rehabilitative programs, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, corruption, and substandard medical care.
On November 17, authorities indicted numerous correctional officers for enabling the escape of prisoners and not executing court orders. Notably, several senior corrections officials, including Emrush Thaci, former Director of the Pristina Detention Center, were indicted for aiding Sami Lushtaku, a convicted war criminal, who had avoided jail time with the help of corrections officials.
During the year the Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (KRCT) received complaints from prisoners regarding inappropriate behavior, verbal harassment, and, in one instance, physical mistreatment by correctional officers, mainly at the Dubrava KRCT and the High Security Prison. Prosecutors opened an investigation in January, and in September the KRCT requested the prosecutor’s office in Istog/Istok expedite this case.
The KRCT noted the internal complaint mechanism mandated by law did not function in prisons as inmates were not able to report human rights violations and other concerns confidentially. Prisoners in some wards at the Dubrava Prison and the High Security Prison lacked complaint forms, and prison management failed to address reported concerns. The KRCT also noted that authorities did not provide written decisions justifying solitary confinement or confirming transfer to another facility. The KRCT further stated that amendments to the 2014 Law on the Execution of Penal Sanctions were not implemented, nor were instructions for implementing the law completed, resulting in a lack of standardized procedures for leave and parole requests.
Physical Conditions: According to the KRCT, physical and living conditions remained substandard in some parts of the Dubrava Prison, which held 750 prisoners. Deficiencies at Dubrava included poor lighting and ventilation in some cells, dilapidated kitchens and toilets, lack of hot water, and inadequate or no bedding, as well as poor-quality renovations and significant delays in repairs.
According to the KRCT, prisoners with special needs or elderly prisoners were not housed separately within correctional institutions, and drug addicts were held with the general prison population. Two prisoners died of natural causes while in custody.
As of October the KRCT received seven complaints from prisoners that correctional staff verbally, and in some cases physically, abused them in the Dubrava Prison and the High Security Prison.
In August the KRCT reported to authorities allegations of physical abuse by prison staff of more than a dozen convicted juveniles in Lipjan/Lipljane Prison. The KRCT interviewed more than 20 juveniles at that facility who all alleged the prison staff routinely slapped detained youth. Following the complaint, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Coalition for Protection of Juveniles visited juveniles at the Lipjan/Lipljane facility and documented numerous allegations of ill treatment. According to the KRCT, one juvenile received head injuries which were not reported to correctional authorities by medical staff.
As of October the KRCT received seven complaints from prisoners that correctional staff verbally, and in some cases physically, abused them in the Dubrava Prison and the High Security Prison.
Due to corruption and political interference, authorities did not always exercise control over the facilities or their inmates. According to the KRCT, inmates complained that officials at the Dubrava and the Smrekovnica prisons unlawfully granted furloughs and additional yard time due to nepotism or bribery. The KRCT reported that mobile phones and illicit drugs were regularly smuggled into correctional facilities, with more than 30 percent of convicts estimated to be addicted to drugs; none were enrolled in drug treatment programs.
The KRCT documented delays and errors in the delivery of medical care to prisoners as well as a lack of specialized treatment. In many instances these conditions forced prisoners to procure needed medications through private sources. The KRCT observed gaps in the prison health-care system at the Dubrava facility and reported an insufficient number of mental health professionals.
Similarly, facilities and treatment for inmates with disabilities remained substandard. The Kosovo Correctional Service held convicted prisoners with disabilities separately from the general prison population. The Kosovo Forensics Psychiatric Institute provided limited treatment and shelter for detained persons with mental disabilities. Advocates for persons with disabilities faulted the government for regularly housing pretrial detainees with diagnosed mental disabilities together with other pretrial detainees, although the Kosovo Correctional Service held pretrial detainees separately from the general prison population.
During the year the Kosovo Correctional Service established a multiprofessional team to address self-injuries and suicide attempts at correctional facilities, although advocates were not aware of improvements. The KRCT noted psychosocial services at the Dubrava Prison and High Security Prison were insufficient and unsuitable for the inmates’ needs despite some improvements at the High Security Prison. There were no legal provisions or administrative instructions for the treatment of prisoners with disabilities. As of November 7, the KCRT reported 10 attempted suicides. Advocates cited frequent transfers and harsh treatment as contributing factors.
On November 5, a Vetevendosje party activist Astrit Dehari committed suicide in the Prizren Detention Center (PDC). Dehari had been detained since August 30 on terrorism charges related to an August 5 rocket-propelled grenade attack on the parliament building. On November 18, the Institute for Forensic Medicine released the final findings of an autopsy, observed by independent experts, maintaining that the cause of death was mechanical asphyxiation. Prizren District Prosecutor Syle Hoxha told media on November 6 that Dehari had scratch marks on his throat and hands. As of November 17, the complete findings of the medical examiner, including a determination of the cause of death, were not published. On November 22, the Ministry of Justice announced disciplinary measures against the acting director, two correctional supervisors, and a corrections officer at the Prizren Detention Center for improperly following procedures in the case. On November 23, authorities suspended a nurse from the detention center in Prizren in connection with the case.
Administration: As of August the prison population consisted of 1,515 convicts, including 52 minors and 38 women, and 334 detainees. A total of 105 foreign citizens were held: 58 convicts and 47 detainees. Officials kept records on prisoners, but correctional service administrators claimed that bureaucratic divisions of responsibility for detainees and convicts created problems. For example, prison authorities could not intervene when pretrial detainees used Ministry of Justice connections to obtain transfers to more comfortable facilities, such as the University Clinical Center in Pristina, even when the prison could provide adequate medical services. During an August 12 visit to the Clinical Center, Minister of Justice Dhurata Hoxha condemned this practice and ordered these prisoners returned to prison.
Both inmates and social workers characterized the Conditional Release Panel as failing to address requests for early release in a timely fashion and for a lack of clarity in the justification of its denials. Prisoners with good behavior records criticized the panel’s lack of consideration of their individual circumstances. The Kosovo Correctional Service received 19 complaints, primarily about transfers and benefits.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits by independent human rights observers, but the Ombudsperson Institution (OI) was the only institution that had continuous and unfettered access to correctional facilities. The KRCT and the Center for Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms (CDHRF) were required to provide 24-hour advance notice of planned monitoring activities. The OI, KRCT, and CDHRF acted as the National Preventive Mechanism, a coordinating body established to jointly monitor arrest procedures and to investigate credible allegations of inhuman prison conditions.
Improvements: According to the KRCT, the Kosovo Correctional Service renovated cells in some correctional institutions, including three wards of the Dubrava Prison and the kitchen at the Lipjan/Lipljane Detention Center. Authorities started assigning prisoners to the High Security Prison, which opened in 2014 in Gerdoc/Gerdovac near Podujeve/Podujevo. As of August there were 143 prisoners in the facility (130 prisoners and 13 pretrial detainees).
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government, EULEX, and Kosovo Force (KFOR), a NATO-led international peacekeeping force, generally observed these prohibitions.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
Local security forces included the Kosovo Police and the Kosovo Security Force (KSF). The law provides that police operate under the authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Police maintained internal security, backstopped by EULEX as a second responder for incidents of unrest and KFOR as a third responder. The border police, within the Kosovo Police, were responsible for law enforcement issues related to border management.
The KSF is a lightly armed civil response force that provides disaster response and humanitarian relief, demining, search and rescue, and hazardous material containment. The Ministry for the Kosovo Security forced managed KSF.
EULEX s mandate is to monitor, mentor, and advise local judicial and law enforcement institutions. It also has some operational responsibilities, serving, with the police force as second responder, including during raids and actions requiring crowd and riot control, although it did not carry out this function during the year. EULEX’s mandate for policing operations is limited to cases of organized crime, high-level corruption, war crimes, money laundering, terrorist financing, and international police cooperation. It also engaged in witness protection operations and training for police in witness protection. EULEX’s executive role gradually decreased as envisaged in the exchange of letters between the government and the EU in 2014 and as extended during the year.
KFOR was tasked with providing a safe and secure environment and ensuring freedom of movement in the country. In addition to patrolling the border with Serbia, it protected the Austerlitz Bridge in Mitrovica/Mitrovice and the Serbian Orthodox Church’s Visoki Decani monastery. As of October the mission comprised 4,559 troops from 31 countries.
EULEX and KFOR personnel generally operated with impunity with regard to the country’s legal system but remained subject to their missions’ and their countries’ disciplinary measures. There were no reports of abuse by EULEX or KFOR.
The government investigated abuse and corruption, although mechanisms for doing so were not equally effective throughout the country. Local security forces in northern Kosovo transitioned to government control as part of the EU-mediated Brussels Dialogue between the country and Serbia.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
By law, except when a crime is in progress, police may apprehend suspects only with warrants based on evidence and issued by a judge or prosecutor. Within six hours, according to law, prosecutors must issue the arrested person a written statement describing the suspected offense and the legal basis for the charges or release the individual. Authorities must bring arrested individuals before a judge within 48 hours or release them and must provide detainees prompt access to a lawyer of their choice or one provided by the state. There is a bail system. Suspects have the right to refuse to answer questions at all stages of an investigation, except those concerning their identity. Suspects have the right to obtain the free assistance of an interpreter, and to receive medical and psychiatric treatment. Police may not hold suspects incommunicado.
Following an initial ruling, a court may hold individuals in pretrial detention for 30 days from the date of their arrest but may extend their detention for up to one year with no indictment. After an indictment and until the conclusion of trial proceedings, only a trial judge or a trial panel can order or terminate detention. The law allows a judge to order house arrest, confiscation of travel documents, and the expanded use of bail as alternatives to pretrial detention.
Although in some instances police were masked or under cover, they generally carried out arrests using warrants. There were no confirmed reports that police abused the 48-hour rule, and prosecutors generally either provided arrested persons with documents describing the reasons for their detention or released them. Officials generally respected the requirement for prompt disposition of cases, but the KRCT reported that detainees occasionally faced delays when attorneys were not available until the morning after a person’s detention. The courts seldom used bail but often released detainees without bail pending trial.
NGOs reported that authorities did not always allow detained persons to contact attorneys when initially arrested and in some cases permitted consultation with an attorney only when police investigators began formal questioning. In several instances detainees were allowed access to an attorney only after their formal questioning. Some detained persons complained that despite requests for lawyers, their first contact with an attorney took place at their initial court appearance.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy detention, both before and during judicial proceedings, remained a problem. The law allows judges to detain a defendant pending trial if there is a well-grounded suspicion that the defendant is likely to destroy, hide, or forge evidence; influence witnesses; flee; repeat the offense; engage in another criminal offense; or fail to appear at subsequent court proceedings. Judges routinely granted pretrial detention without requiring evidentiary justification. Lengthy detention was also partly due to judicial inefficiency and corruption.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release and compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary did not always provide due process. According to the European Commission, the administration of justice was slow and there was insufficient accountability for judicial officials. Judicial structures were prone to political interference, with disputed appointments and unclear mandates. According to the Kosovo Judicial Council, 417,733 civil and criminal cases awaited trial as of July. More than 95,000 actions requiring judicial decisions awaited execution, and more than 201,287 minor charges awaited adjudication.
An effective mechanism for disciplinary proceedings against judges and prosecutors was in place. Authorities generally respected court orders.
EULEX prosecutors and judges functioned as embedded members of the country’s judicial system. The head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office, with jurisdiction over serious crimes, including trafficking in persons, crimes against humanity, money laundering, war crimes, and terrorism, had a EULEX prosecutor as her deputy. In accordance with the 2014 exchange of letters (as extended in 2016) between the government and the EU, EULEX prosecutors may act independently or together with domestic prosecutors in compliance with applicable law. Consequently, EULEX took on some new cases and processed continuing ones.
On September 25, in a key step toward establishing formal judicial institutions in the northern municipalities, the Ministry of Justice published a list of candidates who passed the bar examination, including five Kosovo-Serb candidates who sought to be integrated into the country’s justice system and start working in Mitrovica North Basic Court in accordance with the Dialogue Agreement on Justice. As part of the continuing implementation of the dialogue with Serbia, most civil and criminal cases in the north of the country were not acted upon because the 2015 agreement on justice issues with Serbia was not yet implemented. This delay resulted in several suspects who were charged with serious crimes since 2013 being released by prosecutors in Vushtrii/Vucitrn when their cases reached the two-year statutory limit; hence, the charges were dismissed without a trial. A backlog of approximately 8,000 cases at this court and the lack of prosecutors and judges contributed to the delay of cases.
The law provides for a fair and impartial trial, and the judiciary generally upheld the law. Trials are public and the law entitles defendants to the presumption of innocence, the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges against them, to be present at their trials, to remain silent and not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, to confront adverse witnesses, to see evidence, and to have legal representation. Defendants have the right to appeal. These rights extend to all citizens without exception. The country does not use jury trials.
According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Agency for Free Legal Aid, an independent agency mandated to provide free legal assistance to low-income individuals, has not functioned as envisioned The agency offers legal advice but does not represent cases before the court. A section of the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor helped to provide access to justice for victims of all crimes, with a special focus on victims of domestic violence, trafficking in persons, child abuse, and rape.
The Secretariat of the Kosovo Judicial Council issued a decision in January to close the country’s judicial integration section that previously assisted minority communities in 11 Kosovo Serb-majority areas by accompanying them to court, filing documents with courts on their behalf, and providing information and legal assistance to refugees and displaced persons. The legal aid office in Gracanica/Gracanice closed in August, with the Kosovo Judicial Council agreeing to take custody of its legal files. Following the closure, there was no free legal aid program specifically provided by the country for the Kosovo-Serb community, although an EU-funded program started on September 26 to assist this community.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
There are civil remedies for human rights violations, but victims were unable to avail themselves of this recourse due to complicated bureaucratic procedures and a large backlog of judicial cases. Individuals may appeal to courts to seek damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. In 2015 parliament approved the Law on Crime Victim Compensation, establishing a compensation program for victims of violent crimes and their dependents. The Ministry of Justice appointed a commission to review claims. As of September 14, procedures were still not in place for victims to file claims.
Individuals may turn to the Constitutional Court for review of their rights to due process. The constitution incorporates obligations agreed to in numerous international conventions as binding. Individuals may bring alleged violations of these conventions as well as violations of due process under domestic law before the Constitutional Court.
The government continued to make progress toward resolving restitution of property cases. A confusing mix of laws, regulations, administrative instructions, and court practices, as well as the illegal reoccupation of properties and multiple claims for the same property, continued to hamper such cases. Private citizens as well as religious communities were largely unsuccessful in petitioning for the return of properties seized or confiscated during the Yugoslav era.
As of December 13, the Kosovo Property Claims Commission had decided 41,849 of the 42,749 registered claims for restitution, and authorities notified most claimants of results. The commission reported that the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) authorities implemented 37,714 of its decisions. A total of 1,290 of its decisions were under appeal with the Supreme Court.
The KPA, a quasi-judicial body, had difficulty enforcing its decisions when evicting illegal occupants. The KPA also lacked funds to pay the 3.2 million euros ($3.5 million) compensation called for in the 143 claims decided in favor of persons who lost their properties in the early 1990s due to discriminatory housing practices erratically employed at that time. The agency similarly lacked funds to remove illegal structures constructed on land after claimants had their rights confirmed. As of December, the agency submitted 385 criminal charges to the Prosecutor’s Office against illegal occupants who reoccupied properties after KPA evictions; 720 eviction warrants remained pending during this period. The area of the country with the highest proportion of pending evictions was Mitrovica with 258, primarily for Kosovo Albanians.
The backlog of property claims in municipal courts remained high. Approximately 9,000 claims remained outstanding as of December 2016, most involving monetary claims by Kosovo Serbs for uninhabitable war-damaged property. The country lacked an effective system to allow Kosovo Serbs displaced from the country to file property and other claims from outside the country.
On November 19, the Law for the Kosovo Property Comparison and Verification Agency entered into force, following the Constitutional Court declaring a challenge by a Kosovo-Serb political party inadmissible. The agency’s mandate includes the comparison of all cadastral documents returned from Serbia with the country’s cadastral records to adjudicate claims. Claimants have the right to appeal claims in the courts.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and the government, EULEX, and KFOR generally respected these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press. While the government generally respected these rights, credible reports persisted that some public officials, politicians, businesses, and radical religious groups sought to intimidate media representatives. Media also encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions as provided by law.
The constitution provides for an Independent Media Commission, a body whose primary responsibilities are to regulate broadcast frequencies, issue licenses to public and private broadcasters, and establish and implement broadcasting policies.
Press and Media Freedoms: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, generally without restriction, although reports persisted that government officials, some political parties, businesses connected to the government, religious groups, and disgruntled individuals exerted verbal pressure on media owners, individual editors, and reporters not to publish certain stories or materials.
Growing financial difficulties of media outlets put the editorial independence of all media at risk. While some self-sufficient media outlets adopted editorial and broadcast policies independent of political and business interests, those with fewer resources sometimes accepted financial support from various sources in exchange for positive coverage or for refraining from publishing negative stories harmful to funders’ interests.
Broadcast media, particularly television channels, had more access to substantial sources of revenue than print media. The legislative assembly controlled the budget of public broadcasting station RTK and its affiliates. The public perceived private broadcasters as more independent, but smaller stations reportedly faced an increasing risk of closure and became more reliant on scarce outside funding sources. Unregulated internet media exerted further pressure on broadcast outlets by republishing articles from print or other internet sources, mostly without attribution.
Violence and Harassment: As of November 10, the Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AJK) and media outlets reported 17 instances in which government officials, business interests, or radical religious groups abused press freedom, including by physical assaults and verbal threats directed at journalists and pressure on outlets not to publish certain materials.
On January 26, two individuals wielding iron bars attacked Gazmend Morina, a journalist with the veriu.info web portal. Police submitted evidence to prosecutors that former Mitrovice/Mitrovica South Municipal Assemblyman Nexhat Dedia and Labinot Krasniqi attacked Morina due to his critical coverage of the Trepca mining complex, the largest mining employer in the country, and its director. As of November 10, the prosecution did not file charges or dismiss the case.
Investigative journalist Vehbi Kajtazi reported receiving a threatening text message on March 20 from Prime Minister Isa Mustafa. Kajtazi had published an article mentioning that Mustafa’s brother had sought asylum in order to receive medical care. Kajtazi reported to the police that Mustafa told him “you’ll pay dearly for this.” Police forwarded the case to the prosecution, but as of December no charges were filed.
On July 26, media reported the Turkish Embassy filed a protest with the Foreign Ministry on July 20 demanding that authorities arrest journalist Berat Buzhala for his satirical Twitter post in response to the attempted coup d’etat in Turkey on July 15. The Association of Journalists condemned the request as scandalous and demanded an apology and the ambassador’s removal. The government took no action against Buzhala.
On August 22 and August 28, hand grenades were thrown on the lawn of the public broadcaster RTK in Pristina and onto the property of RTK General Director Mentor Shala’s home. The explosions caused minor damage, but no injuries; no arrests were made. An unknown group calling itself The Rugovans claimed responsibility for the attack via an e-mail sent to the media, accusing RTK of supporting the government’s border demarcation agreement with Montenegro.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports of direct censorship of print or broadcast media; however, journalists claimed that pressure from politicians and organized criminal groups frequently resulted in self-censorship. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical or job security. Journalists occasionally received offers of financial benefits in exchange for positive reporting or for abandoning an investigation. According to the AJK, government officials, as well as suspected criminals, verbally threatened journalists for perceived negative reporting. According to some editors, government agencies and corporations withdrew advertising from newspapers that published material critical of them.
Journalists complained that media owners and managers prevented them from publishing or broadcasting stories critical of the government, political parties, or particular officials due to the owners’ preferences for, or connections with, the individuals concerned. In some cases owners reportedly threatened to dismiss journalists if they produced stories critical of the government and certain interest groups connected to the political establishment. Journalists complained that owners prevented them from producing stories on high-level government corruption.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
As of November the Regulatory Authority of Electronic and Postal Communications reported that approximately 76 percent of all households had internet connections.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government, EULEX, and KFOR generally respected these rights. The law on public gatherings requires organizers to inform police of protests 72 hours prior to the event. Police must notify protest organizers within 48 hours whether their application is accepted, otherwise the request was considered approved.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government and EULEX generally respected these rights. Nevertheless, interethnic tensions, roadblocks placed by hardliners, and real and perceived security concerns restricted freedom of movement. Security concerns also limited the number of displaced Kosovo Serbs seeking to return.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: On August 28, approximately 500 Kosovo-Albanian protesters blocked 150 displaced Kosovo-Serb pilgrims in three buses from reaching the ruins of a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Mushtishte/Musutiste to commemorate a religious holiday. Kosovo Police (KP) evacuated a local priest and his aide from the monastery and responded with tear gas and anti-riot measures to avoid injury to the pilgrims. The KP arrested 25 protesters for hurling rocks and bottles. Six police were injured. Minister for Communities and Returns Dalibor Jevtic told media that the names of potential returnees were placed on billboards before the visit to block their return. The KP escorted the pilgrims safely to the Visoki Decani Monastery.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, persons at risk of statelessness, and vulnerable minority communities.
On October 31, the Suhareke/Suva Reka municipal assembly passed a resolution against the return of Kosovo Serbs to the village of Mushtisht/Musutiste until the following conditions were met: return of missing villagers to their families, the Serbian government apologized for “killings, terror, and demolishment,” and the perpetrators were brought before justice. Minister Jevtic said the resolution violated human rights, was unconstitutional, and was initiated by “property usurpers.”
In-country Movement: Freedom of movement across the Austerlitz Bridge connecting Mitrovica/Mitrovice North and South was impeded despite agreement between the prime ministers of Kosovo and Serbia to open the bridge by June. Implementation of the agreement with the European Union began August 14 with the removal of the so-called “Peace Park” barrier; as of December 7, the process was still ongoing. The bridge remained blocked for vehicular traffic during the year, and in September foot traffic was rerouted to an alternate bridge while construction work was underway.
On October 29, local Kosovo Serbs in Mitrovica/Mitrovice North removed the last barricade (made of sand and gravel) located near an ethnically mixed Bosniak neighborhood. Kosovo Serbs had placed the barricade during July 2011 violence when the KP attempted to take over northern border crossings. On October 30, Kosovo Albanians removed the so-called “Adem Jashari square,” which consisted of a concrete pipe with a Kosovo Liberation Army inscription and an Albanian national flag that had been placed in July 2014 in the center of an intersection in the Bosniak neighborhood.
Emigration and Repatriation: The return of the country’s Ashkali, Egyptian, and Roma refugees from the war in 1999 remained a problem. Their institutional representatives believed that social prejudice prevented the return of nearly 400 Ashkalis, Egyptians, and Roma, displaced persons who told UNHCR they were ready to return from Macedonia and Montenegro. Nevertheless, Gjakove/Djakovica Mayor Mimoza Kusari-Lila inaugurated 52 houses in January for Ashkali, Egyptian, and Roma returnees during the year.
The Ministry for Communities and Returns, with EU financial support, assisted 36 families comprising 197 displaced persons to return to the country, helping them with the purchase of livestock, farm equipment, and furniture, and providing assistance with obtaining legal documents and loans to start small enterprises. The ministry provided loans for income generating projects for returnees through its EU-funded community stabilization project to 119 individual and community projects, including 46 for the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities.
The ministry reported that as of October an interministerial commission it chaired to facilitate the return process had made no serious progress in establishing a special judicial panel to address displaced persons’ claims to regain their previously seized property. The ministry also noted displaced persons still had difficulties in obtaining personal documents and cadastral services from municipalities.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
As of October, UNHCR estimated that 423 displaced persons resided in 29 collective centers (temporary, ad-hoc shelters) in the country.
According to UNHCR 116,151 persons from the country were displaced to other states in the region. Reportedly 8,367 displaced persons (2,104 families), primarily Kosovo Serbs, registered with UNHCR their interest in returning to the country. According to UNHCR, 307 individuals had returned through October 31. The government repeatedly invited all displaced persons to return to the country; however, obstacles persisted in terms of the allocation of land for housing reconstruction, limited funds, and a lack of socio-economic prospects. According to UNHCR, the lack of a detailed census and adequate profiling data left IDPs excluded from human rights protections and development plans.
The return process in some areas of the country continued to be marked by security incidents and by the host community’s reluctance to accept minority returnees. No Kosovo Serb has yet returned to Gjakove/Djakovica. UNHCR observed limited opportunities for interaction between returnees and receiving communities as well as the returnees’ lack of trust in law enforcement. In addition minority return was beset with security difficulties, and official obstruction in Istog/Istok, Kline/Klina, Mamushe/Mamusa, Mushtishte/Musutiste, and Mitrovica/Mitrovice North often discouraged returns. UNHCR reported that significant delays in providing voluntary returnees with reintegration assistance contributed to secondary displacement.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status. The government has a system for providing protection to refugees, but, according to UNHCR, it lacked effective mechanisms and practices for identifying persons in need of international protection, as well as the countries of origin of undocumented individuals. According to the Ministry of Interior, none of the 957 asylum applications processed between 2008 and November resulted in the granting of refugee status, while only 13 individuals received subsidiary protection during this period. As of November there were 231 pending asylum applications. All asylum seekers departed the country before their claims were processed.
Authorities transferred to the asylum center all foreigners who were intercepted while illegally crossing borders and who subsequently sought asylum. Independent observers had access to the center. UNHCR reported that asylum seekers received accommodation, regular meals, and clothing provided by the center, as well as psychological assessment, counseling services, and legal aid. The lack of interpretation services in a number of languages remained a problem.
According to UNHCR the best interests of children were considered during the asylum process, but procedures for conducting such determinations were not in place. Reception facilities at the asylum center can host children, but the facility lacked standard operating procedures for the treatment of children seeking asylum.
In response to the emerging regional refugee crisis during the year, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) worked closely with the government to prepare an adequate response in the event of an influx of refugees and migrants. The planning process revealed that the country would require significant external resources to meet the needs of persons in transit and asylum seekers in case of such an influx. IOM noted that as of September, 4,872 of the country’s citizens were repatriated from western European countries, the vast majority from Germany, where they had sought asylum. The Ministry of Interior worked with municipal authorities to provide support for these returnees, most of whom left the country in late 2014 and early 2015.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The Law on Asylum recognizes the safe country of origin concept under international law, but it has yet to be applied. According to UNHCR the country’s definition of safe country of origin complies with EU standards.
Freedom of Movement: Per the country’s law on foreigners, asylum seekers may not be detained unless charged with non-asylum-related crimes. UNHCR and the KRCT reported that foreigners held on charges in the detention center were treated humanely. The Department of Citizenship, Asylum, and Migration provided detainees with information on their rights in eight languages.
Temporary Protection: From independence in 2008 until November, the government provided subsidiary protection to 13 asylum seekers. The law provides for the granting of refugee status and subsidiary protection, and the government has established a protection system that was active and accessible.
Official figures on stateless persons were not available. The law contains no discriminatory provisions that might cause groups or individuals to be deprived of or denied citizenship. Children acquire citizenship from their parents or by virtue of birth in the country. The procedures provide for access to naturalization for those granted stateless or refugee status five years after the determination.
The law provides for issuance of travel documents to stateless persons. While laws relating to civil status permit them to register life events such as birth, marriage, and death, implementation varied among municipalities. The capacity to identify stateless persons and those with undetermined nationality remained inadequate.
As of November UNHCR assisted 408 unregistered ethnic Ashkalis, Egyptians, and Roma. Unregistered family members did not receive social assistance benefits and pension rights and could not register property titles or retain rights to inherited or transferred property. Children who were born of parents displaced outside the country and who entered with their readmitted parents often lacked documentation, including birth certificates, from their place of birth. Authorities acknowledged the problem but did not develop a systematic solution. In June 2015 the Civil Registration Agency of the Ministry of Internal Affairs promoted free birth registration and late registration by removing the expiration date that would have triggered fees or penalties for many registration services for ethnic Roma, Ashkalis, and Egyptians.
In August the Ministry of Interior reported 618 Ashkalis, Egyptians, and Roma were “legally invisible” due to their inability to provide evidence of their birth in the country. During the year the ministry’s Civil Registration Agency provided birth certificates, IDs, and/or passports to 924 displaced persons from Kosovo in Montenegro.
Kosovo Serbs in four northern municipalities complained that they were not able to register births, marriages, or divorces, and thus obtain official Kosovo documents because their existing documents of life events were registered only under the government of Serbia’s parallel system. During the year the government worked to establish civil registry offices in Kosovo-Serb majority areas in the north of the country, although they have struggled to open them and implement a new arrangement to permit registration. As of December 20, the Civil Registration Agency announced that Kosovo citizens in Zubin Potok, Leposavic/q, Zvecan, and Mitrovice/a could receive ID cards, passports, drivers licenses, and vehicle registrations.