War crimes trial of Kosovo’s former president opens

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Kosovo’s former president has pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, torture and persecution as he went on trial with three other ex-leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Hashim Thaci resigned from office in 2020 to defend himself against the charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during his country’s 1998-99 war for independence from Serbia.

“I am fully not guilty,” Thaci told judges at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers as the trial opened in the Netherlands.

The other three defendants also repeated not guilty pleas made at earlier pretrial hearings.

Pro-Thaci supporters
Supporters of former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci and three other defendants protest in The Hague, Netherlands (AP)

Many Kosovars consider the Netherlands-based court an injustice and view it as an attempt to rewrite the history of their struggle for independence.

Prosecutor Alex Whiting said the KLA, a guerrilla force which battled against the powerful Serbian military, had “a very clear and explicit policy of targeting collaborators and perceived traitors including political opponents”.

Mr Whiting said prosecutors would prove that the KLA and was responsible for hundreds of murders and illegal detentions across Kosovo and northern Albania in 1998 and 1999 and that the four accused are responsible for those crimes as military leaders of the KLA general staff.

The prosecutor said the case was about key defending principles.

Kosovo War Crimes judges
Judges Fergal M Gaynor, Guenael Mettraux, Charles L Smith III and Christoph Barthe (Pool/AP)

“Nobody is above the law, even during wartime.”

Lawyers for Thaci and the other defendants are scheduled to deliver their opening statements on Tuesday. The first witnesses are expected to testify next week.

The trial is taking place at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which is based in the Netherlands but is part of Kosovo’s legal system.

Thaci is standing trial along with Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi for offences allegedly committed across Kosovo and northern Albania from 1998 to September 1999, during and after the war.

Kosovo protest
Thaci faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity (AP)

The court in The Hague and a linked prosecutor’s office were created after a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, a human rights body, that included allegations that KLA fighters trafficked human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and fellow ethnic Albanians. The organ harvesting allegations were not included in the indictment against Thaci.

In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. The United States and most of the West recognise the declaration, but Serbia – supported by allies Russia and China – does not.

Kosovo-Serbia relations remain tense despite efforts from Washington and the European Union, with a recent Western plan envisaging normalisation of their relations.

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