International police accused of using excessive force during riots.
By Jeta Xharra and Krenar Gashi in Pristina and Marian Chiriac in Bucharest.
UN police from Romania might have overstepped their rules of engagement during the bloody violence that followed the controversial rally in Pristina on February 10, which resulted in two deaths and injuries to 80 people, a Balkan Insight investigation can reveal.
The probe, based on exclusive access to film footage of the rally and interviews with officers of the Kosovo Police Service, KPS, as well as protesters, suggests UN police fired rounds of rubber bullets at the rally at close range, sometimes aiming at protesters’ heads.
Experts and human rights organisations say that such action - which has already caused turmoil in UNMIK, with the resignation of UNMIK police commissioner- is highly improper and against UN regulations on police conduct.
In addition, Balkan Insight can reveal that Romanian police have a bad record of using force against civilians.
The protest saw the most serious outbreak of unrest in Kosovo since nationalist riots in March 2004 led to the deaths of 19 people and left thousands of Serbs homeless.
About 3,000 people joined the rally on February 10, held to protest against the UN proposal for Kosovo’s final status.
Protesters said it offered too many concessions to Kosovo’s Serbian minority and the government in Belgrade. Serbia strongly opposes independence for Kosovo, claiming it as an integral part of its own territory.
Police used tear gas and rubber bullets when the protesters tried to break through police lines. Film footage showed the protestors throwing stones and other heavy objects towards the police, including wooden placards.
The nationalist Vetevendosje (self-determination) movement, which held the protest, has, meanwhile, announced a new rally for March 3, raising fears of a fresh confrontation between hard-line supporters of independence and the authorities.
Vetevendosje’s charismatic former student leader, Albin Kurti, was arrested after the protest and is in detention.
A forensic commission of three international experts and one local expert, Arsim Gerxhaliu, confirmed that the autopsy performed on the two victims of the protest, Arben Xheladini, 35, and Man Balaj, 30, showed the two men died from head wounds inflicted by rubber bullets.
According to the human rights body Amnesty International, rubber bullets are known to be potentially lethal and should be treated for practical purposes as firearms.
Rubber bullets “should be used only by trained firearms officers and then strictly in accordance with the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers,” Amnesty said on February 15.
UN regulation states that “law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury”.
Balkan Insight journalists who covered the rally witnessed how UN police continued to fire while advancing towards the protesters, even when it was apparent the crowd of some 3,000 people was retreating.
After viewing about five hours of film, Balkan Insight journalists have seen six instances in which Romanian officers can be seen firing rubber bullets directly into the crowd.
Many have described the Romanian action as uncalled for. When the footage was re-broadcast in slow motion on Kosovo television, RTK, on February 16, Nuredin Ibishi, an expert on police matters and a former member of the special police in Yugoslavia, said it was clear the Romanians over-reacted and fired at close range.
“These weapons need to be fired at the extremities and towards the lower part of people’s bodies and not straight at them, as we see in the film. If used at a distance of [only] 20 to 50 metres and if they shoot towards the area of the people’s heads, there are no doubt these weapons can kill,” said Ibishi.
“At that time, the protestors were running away from the police and the police was not under any kind of danger,” he added.
Nevertheless, Steven Schook, deputy to the UN Special Representative in Kosovo, agreed the UNMIK police fired rubber bullets in an improper manner.
“People don’t die from the proper use of rubber bullets, that’s for sure,” Schook told Balkan Insight on February 15.
The consequences of the protest have caused a serious debate in Kosovo and within UNMIK over responsibility for what to many seemed excessive police force.
The debate forced the resignations last week of the Interior Minister Fatmir Rexhepi, who quit the day after the rally. Steven Curtis, chief commissioner of the UNMIK police, resigned on February 14 while the UN formed a special commission to investigate the matter.
Schook is convinced that investigation on the protest will be successful. “We have taken the investigation out of the hands of the police [and put it] into the hands of department of justice and have engaged the most aggressive and best prosecutor we have, Bob Dean, to look into this investigation thoroughly,” he said.
Schook stressed that the investigation would be in the hands of UN officers of other nationalities than the ones who took part in the rally. This means Ukrainians, Romanians and Poles would not be involved.
There are 115 members of the Romanian Gendarmerie serving in Kosovo, tasked mainly with riot control. As Gendarmerie spokesman Bogdan Nicolae put it, they are there “to maintain order during public manifestations”.
Bogdan Nicolae insisted the Romanian police would cooperate fully with the probe. They had received “no clear evidence yet that their unit in Kosovo used rubber bullets during their mission in Pristina but, if so, we are sure the police did their job in accordance with legal procedures”.
Nicolae admitted that Romania’s domestic rules concerning the use of rubber bullets did not currently apply to its police serving in international missions such as in Kosovo.
In Kosovo, he explained, Romanian officers operated “in accordance… with rules specially designed for war-torn zones. So, in such theatre of operations as in Kosovo, we comply to these rules and not to local ones”.
Schook said, “I consider Kosovo a very late post-conflict environment - ready for the next step, its status resolution and ready for UNMIK to leave and have a new much smaller EU mission instead. That is where I believe we are now.”
But Romanian anti-riot police forces are criticised in their home country as well. Human rights groups in Romania noted that they have drawn attention before to the tactics of the country’s police.
Istvan Haller, of the organisation Pro Europa League, LPE, said it had extensively documented a case last September in which police wounded 30 Roma during a raid on a Roma neighbourhood in Apalina, central Transylvania.
“One person had 17 rubber bullets in his back, which shows the extent of the force used during the police raid,” Haller told Balkan Insight.
LPE and the Romanian branch of the Helsinki Committee have both criticised alleged excessive use of force by the Romanian police in reports.
A report of the Romanian Helsinki Committee, APADOR-CH, has described it as a reflection of “police lack of respect towards the fundamental right to life on the one hand and insufficient professional training on the other”.
Members of the KPS told Balkan Insight of the police failures that led to the deaths and injuries of February 10.
One criticised poor levels of planning before the protest began. “When the police commissioner asked in advance which units possessed anti-riot gear, the Polish, Rumanian and Ukrainian units came out as the ones with the equipment,” he said. “Not much attention was paid towards when and how the rubber bullets were going to be used.”
Kosovo’s mainly Albanian local police force is lightly armed. The KPS possesses tear-gas and batons but has no access to rubber bullets.
Other KPS officers said former police chief Curtis made a mistake in trying to keep local officers out of the loop.
“While the previous police commissioner used to let us make the first draft when it came to dealing with protests, Curtis kept us outside the planning room,” said one officer.
Another KPS officer present at the protest blamed the KPS for failing to assume leadership and for being comfortable with its lack of responsibility.
“It is true we were kept out of the planning of this operation but the KPS at no point protested against this,” he said. “KPS prefer not having to take responsibility for serious or sensitive actions.”
Other KPS officers complained to Balkan Insight that they were not supplied with gas masks for the rally, which left them at a disadvantage.
“We only had a certain number of gas masks and not everybody was equipped with them, so when the clashes started we were trying to cover our eyes because the tear gas affected us, too,” said one officer.
“Not equipping our own ranks with gas masks when we knew we were likely to use tear gas was another sign of bad planning and of the lack of coordination between local and international police units,” said a more senior KPS officer.
Some local police admitted they were reluctant to get involved in heavy-duty policing of fellow Albanians. “We are there to keep order but beating up protestors reminds people of images of the Serbian police in the 1980s and 1990s,” said one officer.
“This history means we were more tolerant than we should have been, which meant it was left to others to do that (disperse the crowd) and only international officers had the means,” said another KPS officer.
“We had to react because protesters were trying to break through our cordon and get to the government’s buildings.”
Ibishi said the police could have tried other means to break up the crowd, such as water cannons. However, Veton Elshani, KPS spokesperson, said neither KPS nor UNMIK police had any.
Both the KPS and UNMIK say they have learned from the experience and even before the report of the investigation is publicised have taken measures to ensure the events of February 10 do not happen again.
“UNMIK has taken an untypical, unprecedented decision in asking its chief police commissioner to resign, which did not happen even after March  riots and shows how seriously we are taking this matter,” said Schook.
Some want more than individual resignations; they want UN officers to be stripped of immunity from prosecution in Kosovo’s local courts.
Sarah Maliqi, of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, said, “The concern remains that as in previous cases when international police officers did something wrong, the worse that can happen to them is being sent home.”
A February 15 statement from Amnesty International, also asks for international officers in UNMIK to be stripped of their immunity.
“Any UNMIK police officers suspected of unlawful conduct should be immediately suspended; they should not be repatriated but should remain in Kosovo until the inquiry establishes whether there are grounds for a criminal prosecution,” said the human rights body.
Jeta Xharra is BIRN Kosovo Director. Marian Chiriac is Romania Country Director. Krenar Gashi is BIRN Kosovo Editor. Balkan Insight is BIRN’s online publication.
Fair use from Balkan Insight.