Michael Montgomery reporting in the Balkans.

A scandal is brewing at the United Nations over the possible destruction of thousands of items of evidence and artifacts recovered by UN war crimes investigators in the Balkans.

I reported several weeks ago for the BBC about how the UN had apparently mishandled evidence of possible war crimes by Kosovo Albanian guerrillas during and after the 1999 war. (See CIR web-exclusive video journals of my reporting trip here.)

My report revealed that officials at the Hague-based UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had destroyed physical evidence at the center of an investigation into allegations of organ harvesting. The material included used medical supplies—drug vials, syringes and IV drip bags—discovered in 2004 by a UN team during a search of a house in central Albania. The team was investigating allegations that civilians captured in neighboring Kosovo by operatives from the Kosovo Liberation Army were taken to the house, subjected to organ harvesting and then killed.

Now, it seems that other items recovered elsewhere by UN investigators and stored in a secure location in The Hague have been destroyed by the ICTY’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP).

According to three sources with direct knowledge of the episode, items dumped by the OTP included a batch of identity cards recovered from victims of the mass murder at Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. The identity cards were burned in an industrial incinerator in The Hague and their destruction was authorized by the OTP’s chief of investigations, according to my sources. What’s more, the sources say the OTP did not inform the Bosnian government or families of the Srebrenica victims that the identity cards were being destroyed.

In total, as many as 3,000 pieces of evidence and artifacts were destroyed by the OTP, according to Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor. The significance of the other materials remains unclear since the ICTY has refused to comment on the allegations.

Two former OTP staffers were shocked by the development.

“This material was of enormous historical value,” says one former investigator, who asked not to be named because of ongoing work with the tribunal. “This was the biggest act of killing in Europe since the Nazis. This was genocide. And for some of the families of the victims, this may have been all they had to mark their loss. This should be a scandal.”

Outside experts generally give the ICTY good marks in how it catalogues and stores evidence. But they say the Tribunal’s evidence unit has been overloaded by the mass of materials arriving from the Balkans.

I emailed Tribunal spokesperson Olga Kavran about the allegations. Here’s our exchange:

April 22, 2009

Ms Kavran:

I’m writing to follow up on our recent telephone conversation.

I recently produced a radio documentary about the fate of civilians who disappeared during and after the 1999 war in Kosovo. One of the episodes examined in the documentary was a 2004 investigation of a house in central Albania by experts from UNMIK and the ICTY’s Office of the Prosecutor. I reported that items recovered by investigators at the house and sent to the ICTY—including used medical supplies—were eventually destroyed by the OTP.

It has come to my attention that other items collected by investigators in the Balkans and shipped to the ICTY have also been destroyed by the OTP (the office of Serbia’s special war crimes prosecutor has cited a figure of 3,000 items in total). The items destroyed included a batch of identity cards recovered in and around Srebrenica following the mass killings there in 1995, according to my sources.

Since these items are not part of any ongoing investigation, I am seeking comment about why they were destroyed and, more broadly, the process the OTP follows in deciding whether or not to preserve evidence and artifacts collected in the field.

Thank you in advance for your assistance.

Sincerely,

Michael Montgomery
Special Correspondent
Center for Investigative Reporting
www.cironline.org

Dear Michael,

Sorry for not responding sooner.

Unfortunately, I am not able to comment or provide you with any details in
relation to your question.

As a general policy, the Office of the Prosecutor does not disclose to the
public or discuss in the media any material collected during investigations
unless such material becomes part of public proceedings before the
International Criminal Tribunal. Like national Prosecutors’ Offices, the
OTP has developed a practice for the retention, storage and destruction, if
necessary, of material which it has obtained. Such internal work practices
are also confidential.

Best regards,
Olga
_____________________
Olga Kavran
Spokesperson for the Prosecutor

* * * * *

CIR’s web series “The Investigators” followed Michael Montgomery during his reporting trip to the Balkans this spring. In part one of “Searching for Kosovo’s Missing,” Montgomery takes viewers to the Albanian house where UN investigators collected evidence of possible organ harvesting.

Michael Montgomery

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He reports on the criminal justice system, vulnerable populations, and the underground economy. Montgomery has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others. After completing a Fulbright fellowship in Eastern Europe, Montgomery covered the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for The Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. He also worked as an associate producer for "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley and was a senior reporter for American RadioWorks. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and the creation of a new war crimes court in The Hague. As a reporter and producer, Montgomery has garnered national and international prizes, including an Overseas Press Club Award, Investigative Reporters and Editors Certificate, Edward R. Murrow Award, Peabody Award and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University gold and silver batons. Montgomery is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.