News 18 Sep 13

Kosovo Commander Limaj Acquitted of War Crimes

Former guerrilla turned politician Fatmir Limaj and nine other ex-KLA fighters have been cleared of abusing Albanian and Serb prisoners at the wartime Klecka detention centre.

Edona Peci

The court in Pristina on Tuesday cleared all ten defendants including Limaj, a ruling party lawmaker and former transport minister, of war crimes against civilians at the improvised jail in Klecka during the late 1990s conflict.

This is the second time that the prominent MP and former guerrilla known as ‘Commander Steel’ has been found not guilty of the charges.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci welcomed the acquittal, saying it vindicated the KLA’s actions during wartime.

“With this process, the cleanness of the Kosovo Liberation Army’s war was proved once again,” Thaci said.

More than a hundred people had gathered outside the court to await the verdict and as Limaj and the other defendants came out, the crowd chanted: “Limaj, Limaj!” and “Celik, Celik!” (Steel, Steel!)

Limaj’s defence lawyer, Tome Gashi, described the acquittal as “a great victory”.

“The verdict only proved something that we already knew before,” he told reporters.

The indictment alleged that Limaj and the others “violated the bodily integrity and health of an unspecified number of Serb and Albanian civilians and Serb prisoners of war” who were detained at the improvised jail in Klecka.

Albanian civilians suspected of collaboration with the Serbian regime, Serbian civilians and Serbian police and military personnel were allegedly imprisoned at Klecka, which according to the indictment also served as a detention centre for KLA soldiers investigated or sentenced for disciplinary offences.

The indictment was mainly based on the secret diaries and testimony of an official at the Klecka prison, Agim Zogaj, known as ‘Witness X’, a former ally of Limaj who provided information about the murders of some of the prisoners held there.

But presiding judge Malcolm Simmons said Zogaj’s evidence was “inconsistent and contradictory”, and sometimes “pure fabrication”.

He said that “the court found that some parts of Zogaj’s diaries were not written by him, but by someone else”.

“The evidence of witness X was wholly unreliable and it would be unsecure to rely on it in order to convict the defendants on the charges in the indictment,” the EU rule-of-law mission judge explained.

Zogaj was the main witness in the case before he was found dead in a park in Germany in September 2011.

After Zogaj’s evidence was ruled inadmissible following his death, Limaj was initially acquitted of the charges in May last year.

But the prosecution successfully appealed against the verdict and the case was sent for a retrial, with Zogaj’s evidence ruled admissible again.

In another previous trial at the Hague Tribunal in 2005, Limaj was acquitted of war crimes against Serbs and Albanians suspected of collaborating with Serbia during the Kosovo war and returned home to a hero’s welcome.

The latest verdict can be appealed within 15 days.

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