Feature 13 Aug 14

An End to Suspicions About Kosovo’s ‘Just War’?

Human rights campaigners hope that a new special court to prosecute suspected post-war crimes against humanity by Kosovo Liberation Army fighters will finally deal with allegations about abductions and organ trafficking.

Edona Peci

The new court, which is likely to indict former senior KLA officials for crimes allegedly committed after the conflict ended, could remove the cloud of suspicion that has hung over Kosovo since the end of 1990s, rights campaigners have suggested.

“If these cases are resolved, Kosovo will be cleared of its responsibilities and Kosovo society will finally be released from the tensions which have been holding it hostage,” Rron Gjinovci from the Center for Research, Development and Publication told BIRN.

“Internationally, this court won’t be anything good for Kosovo in the short term. But in the long term, this court and this process release the country form a burden over alleged war crimes committed in the name of liberty,” he said.

Clint Williamson, the lead prosecutor with the EU’s Special Investigative Task Force, which probed the allegations of post-war abuses, announced last week that KLA officials would be indicted over “unlawful killings, abductions, enforced disappearances, illegal detentions in camps in Kosovo and Albania, sexual violence” and other crimes.

Williamson said that the task force’s report showed that “these individuals bear responsibility for a campaign of persecution that was directed against the ethnic Serb, Roma, and other minority populations of Kosovo and toward fellow Kosovo Albanians who they labeled either to be collaborators with Serbs or, more commonly, simply to have been political opponents of the KLA leadership”.

Rights group Amnesty International expressed satisfaction that the report confirmed the “widespread and systematic nature of the abductions and murders”.

“This is hopefully a step towards justice,” Amnesty International said.

Kosovo’s parliament approved the establishment of the new special court in April, under pressure from Brussels, with most lawmakers reluctantly accepting it as necessary if the country is to make progress towards fulfilling its dream of EU membership.

But MPs voted 89-22 to back the court only after a heated debate in parliament, during which outgoing Prime Minister Hashim Thaci called it “the biggest injustice and insult which could be done to Kosovo and its people”.

“Our war was just and in line with the international norms of war,” insisted Thaci, who was the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the conflict, and whose name has been linked to some of the allegations of post-war crimes, although he has strongly denied any wrongdoing.

The Kosovo government has cautiously welcomed the EU task force report, saying that it was “an important step in determining the potential responsibilities of individuals and putting an end to unfounded allegations and accusations”.

But in a sign of continuing unease in Kosovo about potential future prosecutions of former KLA commanders, the War Veterans Association described the report as “illogical, ridiculous and tendentious”, condemning it as part of a campaign to denigrate the “freedom fighters” of the KLA and their struggle for liberation from Serbian rule.

Previous prosecutions of former KLA guerrillas by the EU rule-of-law mission inside Kosovo have often sparked angry protests by war veterans who see the indicted fighters as heroes rather than criminals.

Behxhet Shala, executive director of the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms, said meanwhile that the allegations in the report were “nothing new” and the suspects should have been brought to justice “much earlier than now, some 15 years after the war”.

Shala also criticised the fact that although the Netherlands-based special court will operate according to Kosovo law, its judges and prosecutors will be internationals.

“The EU has allocated some 300 million [euro] to this court for the upcoming three years. It seems like it will be a good job opportunity for internationals, while local judges and prosecutors will be totally excluded from the court. This won’t do Kosovo good,” he said.

Nevertheless, Shala also admitted that the establishment of the new court was necessary even though it could be traumatic for society.

“Although this [the establishment of the court] is not good news for Kosovo, it is a fact Kosovo has to go through. Kosovo has to clarify its past, although it may be bad and painful for someone,” he said.

Although parliament has voted for the new court to be established, additional legal changes need to be made to put it in line with Kosovo’s constitution so it can actually start work.

Amnesty International said this must be done quickly so that prosecutions can go ahead.

“Any further delay may well lead to impunity and the further intimidation of potential witnesses,” it said.

The EU task force report said that is believed that in the aftermath of the 1998-99 conflict, up to 400 Kosovo Serbs were abducted by the KLA and subsequently taken to Albania, where they were allegedly killed.

The news that the special court will look into these cases has raised hopes amongst Serbs whose relatives disappeared during and after the war.

One of them, Milorad Trifunovic, whose brother Miroslav went missing in the divided northern town of Mitrovica during the conflict, said that he was not yet convinced that the court would make a real difference to many families whose loved ones disappeared.

“There is no political will from both sides, Kosovo and Serbia, to address this issue and disclose the truth about missing persons,” Trifunovic explained.

“We still believe in justice, but it is taking too long,” he said.

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