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The Tisza River verdict – a landmark case

By Kai Muelller-Berner
21 June 2011

A mixed panel of Kosovo and EULEX judges at the District Court in Prishtinë/Priština has sentenced seven defendants to a total of sixty-six years in jail, and issued fines totaling 450,000 Euros for their role in the tragic deaths of fifteen people who drowned in the River Tisza between Serbia and Hungary in October 2009.

The case attracted international media coverage and the case was followed with great interest by EU institutions in Brussels and in EU capitals as it involved key issues for Kosovo’s and the region’s European future. Investigators began a major inquiry into organised crime and the smuggling of migrants. The culmination of that investigation came with the convictions at the Prishtinë/Priština court.

Besides the importance of achieving justice for the victims and their families, the trial is also highly significant for the rule of law not only in Kosovo but also in the region.

Regional cooperation

Regional crime requires a regional approach. This was a complex investigation involving different countries and different jurisdictions. Police and prosecutors from different countries worked together exchanging information and material. A lot of work went on in the background in order to make progress and try to bring justice to all concerned.

The Tizsa River marks the outer border of the EU. The verdict shows that offering illegal border crossing is dangerous and gets punished. This is important for the EU, the countries of the region and all people who want to legally travel to the EU. Crossing borders must be safe and legal. And this latter point is also a pre-condition for visa liberalisation.

Fighting organised crime and human trafficking

The case exposed an organised crime group that offered migrants illegal passage to the EU and EU countries making significant illicit profits by taking 1500 Euros to smuggle a child and 3000 Euros for an adult. The manner the group smuggled the migrants was inherently dangerous and deliberately accepted putting the lives of migrants at risk. The court found that the activities of the organised crime group resulted in the tragic deaths of the migrants in the freezing waters of the Tisza River on 14 October 2009.

Local capacity

There is one other important point about the case – the lead taken by the local rule of law institutions. The prosecution was represented by a Kosovo prosecutor from the Kosovo Special Prosecution Office. One of the judges was from Kosovo. Kosovo Police also played their role. This is an important and noteworthy development for the future.