A European Union panel has agreed to appoint a special prosecutor to probe allegations of organ trafficking and other abuses linked to former commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, including current prime minister, Hashim Thaci.
Under a plan endorsed late last month by EU officials in Brussels, the prosecutor will lead a seven-member international “task force” attached to the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX), according to diplomatic sources.
The prosecutor will have full authority to issue criminal indictments in Kosovo but will operate semi-autonomously from EULEX, with the main offices located outside the region because of security concerns.
EULEX chief Xavier de Marnhac declined to comment on the formation of the task force or when it could begin work. “There are many discussions taking place,” he said.
But according to documents posted on EULEX’s website, the task force will include two criminal prosecutors, two investigators, two liaison officers and one member assigned to handle informants and “covert measures.”
The appointments are to be made as soon as possible, according to the posting.
“They’re moving forward, but many details have yet to be finalized,” said a Western diplomat close to the discussions.
The decision to appoint a special prosecutor follows months of intensive negotiations between the EU and Dick Marty, the Council of Europe’s human rights rapporteur.
Marty’s two-year inquiry released last December concluded that a criminal network linked to Thaci had been involved in drug trafficking, extortion and summary executions of Serbian and Albanian civilians during and after the 1999 war.
Marty alleged the group also harvested organs from murdered civilians to sell for illicit transplants.
Among the victims Marty referred to were Kosovo Serb civilians who disappeared from areas administered by NATO and the UN following the arrival of international forces in June 1999.
Thaci and other former commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army have rejected the allegations and denounced Marty. So too have leaders in neighboring Albania, where the organ harvesting allegedly took place.
Marty’s findings corroborated allegations raised in a 2009 investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the BBC.
The release of the Council of Europe report prompted calls for an international panel to conduct a criminal investigation.
At the same time however, human rights groups questioned whether EULEX was capable of carrying out a sensitive inquiry that could target Kosovo’s political and economic elite.
“The EU mission in Kosovo will face great obstacles to conducting a credible investigation into these serious allegations,” said Lotte Leicht, European Union director at Human Rights Watch.
“It is crucial to have an independent senior prosecutor, an effective witness protection program – including the ability to relocate witnesses outside the Balkans – and the security required for such a delicate investigation.”
In an interview last January, Marty said senior officials and judges at EULEX had told him they had major security problems with local staff and had struggled to keep data confidential. Marty said he was also concerned over witness protection.
“If I myself were a witness, I would talk to someone I trusted but not to international institutions that are not in a position to offer sufficient guarantees of protection,” he said.
Marty said he would decline to hand over sensitive information to investigators until security concerns were addressed.
But EULEX officials at the time defended their ability to conduct thorough investigations and protect witnesses.
“EULEX has the capacity to provide witness security to the highest international standard, which has so far been successful,” spokesperson Karin Limdal said.
The appointment of a special task force based in Brussels but operating formally under EULEX suggests the two sides have now found common ground.
But many questions remain unresolved, including how soon the prosecutor could be in place, how the task force will be financed and whether the United States will play an active role.
It is also not clear how the task force will interact with EULEX officials who have been conducting a preliminary investigation into the organ trafficking allegations.