In a political bombshell for the Balkans, Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has been named in a European report as the head of a 'mafia-like' crime organization - accused of drug dealing, assassinations and organ smuggling. The allegations threaten to derail Kosovo's efforts to gain fully-recognized independence and could have a major impact on the country's relations with the West.
The report claims that at remote bases like this so-called 'Yellow House' in Albania, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army killed up to 500 prisoners and removed their organs, so they could be sold to international buyers on the black market.
The report's author, Council Of Europe Rapporteur Dick Marty, says the crimes were covered up after the Kosovo war. "It was known by numerous people who privately would tell you: 'well yes, we know but for reasons of political opportunity we have decided or we feel we have the duty to keep quiet'," he said.
The report even names Kosovo's Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, as the head of the criminal gang that profited from the organ trade and that also carried out assassinations and drug trafficking. Thaci's party is still celebrating its win in Sunday's election. He says the claims are an attempt to slander the country's leaders.
"The scandalous report of the member of the European Council parliamentary assembly, Dick Marty, is a document filled with slanders and lies, which recycles 15 years old propaganda," he said.
Serbia has welcomed the Council of Europe report. Serb forces withdrew from Kosovo after a NATO bombing campaign in 1999. Seventy-two countries have since recognised Kosovo's independence, although Serbia still disputes the claim.
James Ker-Lindsay of the London School of Economics has written a book on Kosovo's efforts to gain independence. He says the accusations have the potential to derail that progress.
"I think that this is going to make it a lot more difficult for supporters of Kosovo's independence to gain more recognitions. And also we have questions about political dialogue with Belgrade. The Serbian government has said it's still interested in talking, but if these allegations are investigated and there's a case to answer, I think it's going to be very difficult for the Serbian government to continue talking with Thaci," he said.
The report claims that criminal gangs continued to harvest organs after the war at this clinic near Pristina. And in fact, in a currently-ongoing court case, seven people are on trial for trading in the organs of people living in extreme poverty. Prosecutors claim poor people from Moldova, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkey were offered up to $20,000 for their organs, but were never paid.
Surgeon Lutfi Dervishi is alleged to be the ringleader of the group. The Council of Europe report also links him to the Kosovo Liberation Army's alleged kidnapping and killing of Serb civilians for their organs. He denies the charges.
The prosecutor in the current case, Jonathan Ratel, says there are good reasons why Kosovo appears to be a hub for the illegal organ trade. "Post-conflict states, where clinics can be set up quickly, the rule of law or the legal regime or the health regime is weak, and persons can exploit that. The opportunity for exploitation of persons by trafficking is immense," he said.
The Council of Europe has tabled the report for discussion next month and will decide then whether to launch a criminal investigation into the allegations against Prime Minister Thaci.