For years now, the massacre from May 1999 in Dubrava prison in Kosovo has been considered “the next big case” of Serbian war crimes prosecutor’s office. Numerous witnesses were interrogated, several separate criminal charges were prepared, forensic evidence are available, statements of experts and survivors used in different processes in the Hague Tribunal. However, up until today, no charges were filed.
It is suspected that members of the Serbian special police, who had taken control over the prison together with chosen Serbian prisoners, participated in a 2-day murdering of Albanian prisoners and that former high political officials from Belgrade were involved in planning and organizing the crime. Forty-eight persons are on the list of suspects and the priority of the investigation, which was initiated by the Prosecutor’s office last June, are direct perpetrators. The big fish – ministers, advisors, generals and chiefs of Milosevic’s apparatus – are left for some other stage of investigation of Dubrava crime, if there ever is one.
Correctional facility Istok, which was its official name back in the 1980s when it was built as one of the biggest and the most modern prisons in the region, is in western Kosovo, in the village of Dubrava, near Istok. The only thing that differed it from other prisons in Serbia was its modern architecture; inside the walls the same micro-culture of torture and corruption ruled. Due to its specific position, Dubrava was under close observation of the world public; out of 46 political prisoners registered in Kosovo in 1997, 41 enjoyed the “Swedish standard” in Dubrava.
Until mid-1998 the capacities of the prison were not fully used and 400 prisoners of different nationalities, mainly Albanians, served their sentences in separate blocks. According to later testimonies of prisoners who survived, after the international military intervention was first announced, Dubrava became very busy. Many witnesses said that, until mid-autumn, part of the prison complex was used as a base for special police units commanded by the most famous Serbian murderer of that kind, Milorad Ulemek Legija and that military units were also deployed around the prison. Witnesses in the Hague tribunal said that, during that period, armed attacks on near-by Albanian villages were organized in Dubrava.
Before the NATO intervention started on March 24th, 1999, Dubrava cells were full: many Albanian prisoners from central Serbia were transferred there, together with dozens of Serbian and Montenegrin prisoners convicted of serious crimes, mainly from the prison in Pozarevac, as well as many recently arrested Kosovo Albanians, who were awaiting trials for “undermining the constitutional order”. According to the data of ministry of justice, Correctional facility Istok accommodated 1,004 prisoners in those days and over 90% of them were Albanians.
NATO planes attacked Dubrava for the first time on the morning of May 19th, 1999. State press agency Tanjug reported that at least 2 persons were killed. The second strike came on the morning of May 21st and official reports claimed that at least 19 prisoners were killed and dozens were injured. Deputy warden of the prison was also killed. Judicial investigation team from Pec arrived on the same day, but the visit was interrupted by another alert. Couple of days later, the official statement said that around 100 Dubrava prisoners were killed and 200 were wounded and that the prison is being evacuated. Investigating judge said that the prison had been “razed to the ground” and that the 86 bodies found in the ruins were identified according to the legal procedure, forensically processed (finger prints, external examination and photographs) and then buried in a Muslim cemetery in the Istok municipality. It was also said that 196 wounded prisoners were accommodated in the near-by hospitals and that an undetermined number of prisoners escaped. Until the end of that week, the official number of victims in Dubrava will remain 93. All the victims were attributed to NATO.
Even in those days, independent sources suspected the official story about the events, but the investigation will have been possible only after retreat of Serbian forces from Kosovo, when a Spanish forensics team exhumed 97 bodies of men aged from 18 to 60 from the cemetery in near-by village of Rakos, who were buried as “John Does” under marks of correctional facility. Estimated number of victims of the bombing out of the total number of found victims, was cut in half. It was established that at least 50 persons had wounds from firearms.
Some of the names of victims from Dubrava would appear for the first time in the extensive indictment of the International tribunal in the Hague against Slobodan Milosevic, in the part dealing with crimes in Kosovo. The Prosecutor claimed that Serbian forces ordered the prisoners on May 22nd, 1999 to line up in the yard with their personal belongings for evacuation to a prison in Nis and then opened fire at them from automatic weapons. The indictment claims that the prisoners who survived the first shooting and tried to hide in manholes and cellars of the prison complex were killed by bombs and guns the following day. During the presentation of evidence, two prisoners who survived were interrogated, as well as a BBC journalist who was part of the group of reporters invited by the management to visit the prison after the second air strike.
The murder of at least 50 prisoners in Dubrava, which was the estimated number in those days, was part of the indictment against “the Kosovo group” which was initially comprised of generals Nebojsa Pavkovic, Vladimir Lazarevic, Sreten Lukic and Vlastimir Djordjevic, while politicians Milan Milutinovic and Nikola Sainovic were added later. The Dubrava crime was excluded from the indictment against this group by later revision “for expediency”. It was assumed that the national prosecutor’s office would be interested enough to take over the case and investigate the witnesses’ claims which indicated a joint criminal enterprise of different actors along the whole chain of command in the judicial and police system.
It turned out that Dubrava wasn’t interesting enough and public oblivion of the crime will be disrupted only in 2010 by criminal charges against 34 persons responsible for murder of more than 90 and wounding of more than 150 Albanian prisoners on May 22nd and 23rd, 1999 filed to Prosecutor for war crimes by the Humanitarian law center.
Charges were filed against then-minister of justice in the government of Serbia Dragoljub Jankovic, his deputy Zoran Stevanovic and assistant minister of the police general Obrad Stevanovic, as well as numerous identified police officials and unidentified members of the Kosovo police, as well as members of prison management and guards from Dubrava. The Center demanded investigation due to reasonable doubt that they planned, organized, ordered and participated in killing of unarmed Albanian prisoners, as well as destruction of evidence of the crime and hiding of direct perpetrators.
“Preliminary investigation” which was ongoing during the following years, discovered that there was an order for immediate transfer of Serbian prisoners to Dubrava, so the former minister of justice, in charge of such decisions, was interrogated, but only as a citizen; it was speculated that the Prosecutor has found potential cooperating witness, member of upper echelon of the command who would be able to provide more details about the crime.
In the meantime, it turned out that criminal charges filed by the Humanitarian law center were not the first charges submitted to the war crimes Prosecutor regarding the shooting of prisoners in Dubrava. A missive bizarrely entitled “Criminal charges for war crime and theft of our salaries”, regarding two advisors to minister of jJustice, manager of Dubrava prison and chief of security department was sent to the president and government of Serbia, the Prosecutor’s office and the Ombudsman on July 29th, 2008. This is the first time that arming of Serbian prisoners and their participation in the crime is mentioned.
According to unofficial information obtained by Pescanik, the ongoing investigation of the Prosecutor’s office has determined that prisoners of Serbian nationality were transferred from maximum security prisons in Belgrade, Pozarevac and Nis, allegedly by the order of then-minister of justice. They enjoyed special privileges in Dubrava: among other things, they used official police radios and official vehicles within and outside the prison complex. After the bombing began they were armed with “automatic and semi-automatic rifles, Uzis, guns, ammunition, hand-held rocket launcher (so called zoljas), hand grenades (so called kasikare)…” After they had completed their assignment, they were returned to central Serbia and handed over the weapons and other equipment to prison management – with official records.
Operative information suggests that at dawn of May 22nd, 1999, Dubrava prison was practically put under the control of special police units, whose members were deployed within the prison complex after agreement was reached with prison management. They were led by armed Serbian prisoners. One of them used a megaphone to summon the Albanian prisoners to the courtyard “and then the police from watch-towers and closed internal part of the prison shot at them from hand-held rocket launchers and firearms and threw hand grenades at them; around 80 persons were killed or wounded on this occasion”.
Then it is stated that on the next day armed “convicted persons of Serbian and Montenegrin nationality… fired zoljas, fire arms and threw hand grenades from watch-towers and external wall into the closed part of the prison, where the convicted persons of Albanian nationality were; they entered the closed part of the prison and manholes and threw hand grenades at prisoners of Albanian nationality”; around 80-100 prisoners were killed on this occasion.
According to unofficial findings obtained by Pescanik, a Serbian prisoner known as “Zenica”, “finished off” survivors by twisting their heads and breaking their necks or by shooting them from firearms.
Romas working in utility services in Istok were assigned to perform “sanitation of the field”, i.e. transfer the bodies in the initial stage of decomposition to the cemetery in the village of Rakos. Ninety-seven bodies were buried in the Muslim cemetery – “in the prescribed manner”.
However, some witnesses said that Belgrade prisoner called “Limun”, armed and wearing a balaclava, led a group of Serbian prisoners in charge of transporting the bodies to a mass grave on an unknown location under the mountain Mokra Gora, about 20 km from Dubrava. “The mass grave was dug by a backhoe, “zigzag” style and after it was buried it was covered by branches and bushes.”
The exact number of prisoners murdered in the prison which was put under command of mixed group of Serbian police and criminals during the bombing, has not yet been determined. It is assumed that up to 20 persons were killed in two air strikes of NATO planes or died from injuries later in the hospital or during the evacuation; several prisoners were probably killed when they tried to escape, shortly after the bombing, when the outer wall was breached. The majority of 97 persons exhumed in the village of Rakos were shot inside the prison. According to unofficial calculations, around 120 persons from final lists of dead and survivors from Dubrava are still missing.
Translated by Marijana Simic