The trial of four top commanders of the former rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) started in The Hague's Kosovo war crimes tribunal on Monday.
Hashim Thaci, Kadri Veseli, Jakup Krasniqi and Rexhep Selimi stand accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out in Kosovo between 1998 and 2000. So far, 312 witnesses have been identified by the prosecution.
Thaci was the political leader of the KLA before and during the 1998-99 Kosovo war, which broke out between the forces of Serbia and Montenegro and the KLA Kosovo Albanian rebel group. Veseli was the head of the group's intelligence service; Krasniqi was its spokesman; and Selimi was among the general staff.
The Yugoslav government labeled the KLA a terrorist organization and took relentless action against its members. Among other things, the police surrounded the house of Adem Jashari, whom they considered the leader of the group. Sixty people were killed in the operation, mostly members of Jashari's family, 18 women and 10 children. This event, on March 5, 1998, triggered an intense international commitment to detente and a reduction in violence.
It eventually also brought NATO's intervention to end the conflict, though NATO's own bombing campaign remains controversial. The KLA and the armed resistance against the Serbian units gained more and more support from broad sections of the Kosovo Albanian population during this period, when Thaci became the KLA's political spokesman.
In June 1999, the UN passed a resolution and Serbian units withdrew from Kosovo. Thaci and other KLA representatives formed an interim government, and the UN installed the interim administration mission, UNMIK.
Four men part of a 'joint criminal enterprise'
The indictment includes charges of unlawful imprisonment, torture, murder, crimes against humanity, enforced disappearances and persecution of hundreds of civilians and people who did not want to take part in the fighting. These crimes allegedly took place between March 1998 and September 1999 in various places in Kosovo, but also in northern Albania in the municipalities of Kukes and Cahan.
"The victims included persons suspected of being opposed to the KLA and later the Provisional Government of Kosovo," the indictment read. These victims are said to have included members of the Serbian, Roma and Ashkali populations, Catholics, civilians allegedly collaborating with Serb authorities as well as Albanians who merely supported other parties perceived as anti-KLA, and or simply did not join or support the KLA.
According to the Specialist Chambers, Thaci, Veseli, Krasniqi and Selimi bear personal criminal responsibility for these crimes.
The indictment charges that between March 1998 and September 1999, they "and other members of the joint criminal enterprise shared the common purpose to gain and exercise control over all of Kosovo" by means of the crimes listed above. It also states that the four men personally participated in threats, interrogations, ill treatment and arrests of opponents.
The prosecution said it has handed 56,000 documents over to the defense. Three weeks ago, names of some victims believed to have been killed or forcibly abducted were published for the first time.
Defense cites international support
Defense lawyers for Thaci have denied the charges and argued that the KLA would never have received support from the international community if there had been a criminal plan on the scale suggested by prosecutors. In their view, the indictment is based on a selective misinterpretation of the incidents.
Thaci's defense team has announced it will call internationally known political figures as witnesses, including Wesley Clark, William Walker, Bernard Kouchner, Daan Everts, Michael Durkee, Jock Covey and Steve Bennett, all of whom were diplomats representing international organizations including NATO, the OSCE and the UN.
What is the special tribunal?
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers & Specialist Prosecutor's Office was established by the Kosovo Parliament in August 2015. The seat of the tribunal was moved to The Hague to avoid witnesses being threatened. Costs are covered by the European Union, and the tribunal includes a unit for the protection of victims.
The idea to establish the special tribunal arose after the Council of Europe passed a resolution calling on Kosovo to investigate allegations made by former Swiss Senator Dick Marty, who accused KLA members of war crimes and organ trafficking in 2010. The organ trafficking allegations have not been substantiated and do not appear in the current indictment.
The special tribunal is not part of the former International War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, which had adjudicated crimes during the Yugoslav wars, prosecuting both Kosovar and Serbian politicians. In two trials of former KLA commanders there, the accused — Ramush Haradinaj and Fatmir Limaj — were acquitted
Political fallout in Kosovo
Since the end of the war, there have been repeated clashes in Kosovo between representatives of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, founded by the currently accused Hashim Thaci, and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) founded by Ibrahim Rugova.
The former chairman of the LDK, Fatmir Sejdiu, has said members of his party were victims of acts of vengeance during and after the war because of their political positions, though he hasn't given any names.
Persistent speculation about possible crimes after the war motivated Thaci himself to demand that the Kosovo parliament establish a special tribunal to investigate such allegations.
Since the establishment of the special tribunal at The Hague, only one conviction for war crimes has been handed down, in December 2022, when former KLA commander Salih Mustafa was sentenced to 26 years in prison.
This article was originally published in German.