The war crimes trial of former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci began on Monday at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague, Netherlands.
Thaci, who served as commander-in-chief of the ethnic Albanian rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and three other former KLA heads, Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi, are charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes that took place during the 1998-1999 armed conflict against Serbian forces.
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Thaci pleaded not guilty to all 10 counts, telling the court: “I understand the indictment and I am fully not guilty.”
Following the war, Thaci, whose nom de guerre was “Snake” for evading the Serbian police, and the three co-defendants took up prominent positions in the government.
He served as president from 2016 until his resignation in 2020 following his indictment.
Veseli and Krasniqi served as a former chairman of the Kosovo assembly while former Member of Parliament Selimi was a founding member of Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK.
The four accused were transferred to The Hague after their indictment was confirmed in November 2020. They have all pleaded not guilty to all counts.
For more than two years, Thaci has been held in pre-trial detention.
According to the indictment, between at least March 1998 and September 1999, the four defendants have been accused 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”, it said.
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 alleged 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.
Journalist Xhemajl Rexha told Al Jazeera from Kosovo that the country “was pressured by its allies, mainly the US, to establish the Specialist Courts in 2015 as a result of a Council of Europe report alleging ‘organ trafficking’ by the KLA in Albania during the war with Serbia.
“These accusations never made it to the indictment against the ‘Big Four’, and 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,” Rexha said.
He added that it is “very likely” that Thaci, Veseli, Krasniqi and Selimi will be acquitted, if not in the first instance, then in Appeal.
“It would be very difficult for the prosecution to link their actions or lack of them, with the alleged killings and tortures in 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 ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia] on similar charges, a few years back,” he said.
Bekim Blakaj, executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre Kosovo, said that in the trial, most of the hearings of witnesses proposed by the prosecution are closed to the public, in order to protect them.
“It is very hard to create sympathy towards victims, if they don’t hear [their] stories,” Blakaj told Al Jazeera.
“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,” Blakaj said.
“We do ask for justice for victims, acknowledge all victims; this is the main message.”
Amnesty International’s Balkans researcher Jelena Sesar told Al Jazeera that the indictment is significant as “it focuses on command responsibility by Mr Thaci and KLA leadership 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,” Sesar said.
“The failure to properly investigate the crimes that took place between 1998-1999 has been a stain on the ICTY’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.”