2017 in Review 27 Dec 17

Kosovo: War Court Challenged, Ex-Guerrillas Acquitted

MPs staged a dramatic intervention to try to stop the new special court which will try former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, while courts in Pristina acquitted two prominent politicians and ex-guerrilla commanders.

Die Morina BIRN Pristina

A KLA veteran during a protest in Pristina. Photo: Atdhe Mulla/BIRN.

As the year drew to a close in Pristina, a group of MPs made a controversial attempt on the night of December 22 to scrap the law that established the new Kosovo Specialist Chambers, as the new Hague-based court prepares to issue its first indictments of former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters for wartime and post-war crimes.

Forty-three MPs out of a total of 120 signed a demand for an extraordinary parliamentary session to revoke the Kosovo law that allows the Specialist Chambers to operate.

The move came after a protest by KLA veterans, who accused the court of being biased.

“The court ought not to try only KLA members but also Serbs who committed crimes in Kosovo,” argued the head of the Veterans’ Association of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Hysni Gucati.

The US and Britain, Kosovo’s main wartime backers, issued stern warnings to the MPs to step back from the attempt to revoke the law.

“This effort, if it succeeds, will have profoundly negative implications for Kosovo’s future as part of Europe. It will be considered by the United States as a stab in the back,” said the US ambassador to Pristina, Greg Delawie.

The British ambassador, Ruairi O’Connell, warned that if the MPs’ effort, succeeded, it would “call into question whether Kosovo believes in justice or impunity. It would have grave consequences for Kosovo.”

The EU also issued a similar warning, and amid the strong pressure from Kosovo’s international allies, there was no quorum at a meeting of the parliamentary presidency to move the issue to a vote.

The new Specialist Chambers, which is expected to try senior KLA figures for alleged crimes committed during and after the war with Serbian forces, spent 2017 readying itself to deliver its first indictments.

International judges and prosecutors staff the court, although it will operate under Kosovo’s laws.

The alleged crimes under investigation include killings, abductions, illegal detentions and sexual violence. The first indictments are expected in the new year.

The Specialist Chambers is unpopular with Kosovo Albanians - over three-quarters (76.4 per cent) of whom see it as unfair, suggested a public opinion survey published in September.

But the court’s president, Ekaterina Trendafilova, during her first official visit to Pristina in November, promised that it will deliver independent justice, and insisted that its mandate is to try cases against individuals, not organisations or ethnicities.

“I’m astonished to read articles that say the Specialist Chambers are going to investigate KLA crimes. The law is very clear, it speaks about individual responsibility,” Trendafilova said.

“Anyone who is a citizen of Kosovo or the former Yugoslavia can be held responsible,” she added.

Ramush Haradinaj arrested on a Serbian warrant

Ramush Haradinaj with French police. Photo: Jean-Francois Badias/BETA.

2017 had started with a shock for Kosovo when former prime minister and ex-guerrilla commander Ramush Haradinaj was arrested at Basel Mulhouse Freiburg Airport as he entered France on January 4.

Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party leader Haradinaj - who has now become prime minister again - was held on a warrant arrest issued by Serbia, which accused him of committing crimes while he was a wartime commander with the KLA.

His arrest sparked protests by Albanians both inside and outside Kosovo, calling for his release and condemning the arrest as a political act.

“Serbia’s request for extradition is an abuse of the law,” Haradinaj insisted, describing himself as a “hostage to politics”.

The incident fuelled tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, which then escalated further when a passenger train painted in the colours of the Serbian flag and bearing the words “Kosovo is Serbian” in 21 different languages, including Albanian, was despatched from Belgrade to Mitrovica in Kosovo in mid-January, although it eventually stopped before crossing the border.

Serbia demanded Haradinaj’s extradition to Belgrade to stand charges, but after almost four months in France, a court allowed him to return home instead, where he was greeted by thousands of celebrating supporters.

Belgrade officials were furious: “The Serbian government considers this decision disgraceful, scandalous, unlawful, and above all else, political,” fumed Serbian premier Aleksandar Vucic.

Haradinaj was twice acquitted by the Hague-based court for the former Yugoslavia of committing war crimes during the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict.

However, Serb officials insisted that they have evidence that Haradinaj was involved in other war crimes for which he has not yet been prosecuted.

They said he is suspected of the murders of civilians, including the killing of a two-week-old baby, as well as torture and the rape of a minor. Haradinaj strongly denied the allegations.

Prominent politicians acquitted of war crimes

Sami Lushtaku outside court. Photo: Atdhe Mulla/BIRN.

In Kosovo’s courts, two high-profile judgments were handed down that acquitted prominent politicians of wartime criminality.

In May, the Supreme Court acquitted former KLA commander Fatmir Limaj - who is now the leader of the NISMA (Initiative for Kosovo) party - of committing war crimes at the Klecka detention centre in 1999.

Albanian and Serb civilians and prisoners were beaten and tortured by Kosovo Liberation Army members at Klecka during the war, but the Supreme Court ruled that an appeal against the acquittal of Limaj and nine other ex-guerrillas was unfounded.

The Klecka case had relied on the testimony of a single witness, Agim Zogaj, a former ally of Limaj who committed suicide while under the protective custody of EULEX in Germany in 2011.

Limaj had previously been acquitted in 2007 by the UN tribunal in The Hague of war crimes against Serbs and Albanians suspected of collaborating with Serbia during the Kosovo war.

“Today I received the fifth confirmation that our fight was honourable, not just mine, but also that of my fellow fighters,” Limaj said after May’s acquittal.

Kosovo’s Supreme Court also acquitted former KLA commander Sami Lushtaku of war crimes in July.

Lushtaku, who was the mayor of the Kosovo town of Skenderaj/Srbica, had been convicted in 2015 of a murder committed in 1998, although the victim’s name was unknown and no body was found.

He was cleared of the murder on appeal in 2016, but his conviction for “command responsibility for allegedly violating the [bodily] integrity and health of an undefined number of civilian Albanians held at the Likovc detention centre” was upheld.

The Supreme Court however absolved him of the remaining charge.

Lushtaku’s wartime comrades from the KLA’s so-called ‘Drenica Group’ were found guilty by the Supreme Court.

In September, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict convicting ten ex-members of the ‘Drenica Group’ of crimes against civilians during the 1998-99 conflict.

Those convicted included Sylejman Selimi, Pristina’s former ambassador to Albania and the ex-head of the Kosovo Security Force.

Selimi was found guilty of torturing a civilian prisoner at an improvised KLA detention centre in the village of Likovc/Likovac in the Skenderaj/Srbica municipality in 1998 and early 1999.

Meanwhile the appeals court in Pristina decided in February to retry Oliver Ivanovic, a former Serbian government official and head of a Kosovo Serb political party called Freedom, Democracy, Justice, who was convicted of war crimes for ordering the murder of ethnic Albanians in Mitrovica in 1999.

Ivanovic was found guilty last January of ordering the murders in the town of Mitrovica on April 14, 1999 during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when he was allegedly the leader of a paramilitary police unit.

The Albanians were killed by so-called ‘Bridge Watchers’ - Serb hardliners who patrolled the main bridge in Mitrovica that divides the town into Serb and Albanian sectors.

Ivanovic repeatedly claimed that his prosecution was politically motivated and went on hunger strike in protest several times during the trial. Belgrade also called for his release, claiming that the case was biased.

War crimes documentation centre opens

Photos on display at the new war crimes documentation centre in Pristina. Photo: Sense Agency.

Ahead of the first indictments from the Specialist Chambers, the Humanitarian Law Centre Kosovo opened a war crimes documentation centre in Pristina in September, enabling people to get more information about crimes committed during the 1998-99 war.

The documentation centre’s first material was nine short films of 10 to 12 minutes, based on data from five trials at the Hague Tribunal - the cases against Slobodan MilosevicVlastimir DjordevicNikola SainovicRamush Haradinaj and Fatmir Limaj.

The director of the Humanitarian Law Centre Kosovo encouraged survivors to share their stories or donate items from wartime, and promised that as soon as hearings at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers begin, those will be documented at the centre too.

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