Sunday, June 2, 2024

Kosovo’s Thaci and KLA members to face war crimes trial


Former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci and three other former heads of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) are set to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague, Netherlands. Thaci, who served as commander-in-chief of the KLA, along with Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi, and Jakup Krasniqi, are accused of committing crimes during the 1998-1999 armed conflict against Serbian forces. The four defendants have all pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The indictment alleges that between March 1998 and September 1999, the four defendants committed 10 counts of persecution, imprisonment, illegal or arbitrary arrest and detention, other inhumane acts, cruel treatment, torture, murder, and enforced disappearance of persons. By participating in a joint criminal enterprise, the accused wanted control over “all of Kosovo by means including unlawfully intimidating, mistreating, committing violence against and removing those deemed to be opponents”. Such opponents included alleged suspected collaborators with Serbian forces, as well as officials, state institutions and those who did not support the aims of the KLA, including associates of the Democratic League of Kosovo, Serbs, Roma and other ethnicities.

The indictment alleges that KLA members committed crimes in Kosovo and northern Albania against hundreds of people not taking part in hostilities. “[The crimes] were part of a widespread and systematic attack against persons suspected of being opposed to the KLA,” the indictment said.

Serbia’s treatment of the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo gave rise to the rebel KLA, founded in the early 1990s. Violence spiralled in 1998-99 as the KLA fought for independence against Belgrade’s forces led by President Slobodan Milosevic. The war ended in 1999 when NATO bombed Belgrade to stop the killings and expulsions of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo by Serb forces. More than 10,000 people were killed in the war. According to Human Rights Watch, about 500 civilians were killed in the NATO bombing.

Kosovo later declared independence from Serbia in 2008, which Belgrade has refused to recognise.

The trial of Thaci and the three other former KLA heads is significant as it focuses on command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity, rather than dealing with isolated incidents. Previous attempts to investigate the KLA were faced with obstruction of justice, including intimidation of potential witnesses and threats to prosecutors and judges. The failure to properly investigate the crimes that took place between 1998-1999 has been a stain on the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia’s record and the fact that those suspected of war crimes continued to live freely and occupy senior positions in the government only created a widespread sense of impunity.

However, there is a sense of anger in Kosovo with many considering the court biased that will only deal with alleged crimes by KLA, and not those of Serbian army and police which resulted in more than 10,000 ethnic Albanian deaths and one million refugees. The public in Kosovo does not support this court because they see it as a politically motivated court – a court that is trying only one side, because the vast majority of crimes committed in Kosovo were committed by Serbian forces against Albanians, and there’s almost no substantive trials against them.

The trial is expected to be challenging for the prosecution as it would be very difficult to link their actions or lack of them, with the alleged killings and tortures on the ground, as KLA is deemed to have been a guerrilla with a not properly established chain of command. Former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and former deputy prime minister Fatmir Limaj were acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia on similar charges a few years back.

Most of the hearings of witnesses proposed by the prosecution are closed to the public in order to protect them, making it very hard to create sympathy towards victims if they don’t hear their stories. However, human rights organisations are calling for justice for victims and acknowledgement of all victims.

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