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Kosovo war trial: More resentment between Kosovo and Serbia?

Elona Elezi in The Hague, Netherlands
April 5, 2023

The Kosovo war remains a thorny issue in the relationship with Serbia. Experts think the trial in The Hague is one-sided and could exacerbate tensions between the two sides.

People holding up banners and flags at a protest rally
Support for former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci is still strongImage: Valdrin Xhemaj/REUTERS

In one of the court rooms of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague, four ex-commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) are in the dock. Some 24 years ago, they were at the height of their power, when Kosovo won the war against Serbia, whose army and paramilitaries killed more than 13,500 Kosovo Albanians in 1998-1999, raped over 20,000 women and "ethnically cleansed" thousands of others.

At that time, Hashim Thaci, the former president, Jakup Krasniqi, Kadri Veseli and Rexhep Selimi carried the heavy burden of the war and its aftermath. This week in The Hague they are facing charges of individual criminal responsibility with six counts of crimes against humanity: persecution, imprisonment, other Inhumane acts, torture, murder, and enforced disappearance of persons.

They're also charged with four counts of war crimes: illegal and arbitrary arrest and detention, cruel treatment, torture, and murder.

According to the indictment, they targeted some 400 people, 100 of whom lost their lives. They belonged to ethnic minorities — Serbian and Roma — or were political opponents of the largest rival party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Thaci and the others were arrested in 2020.

Specific mandate to examine war crimes

Former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci, left, and Rexhep Selimi, rear right, appear before the Kosovo Tribunal
The trial against Thaci (top left) is expected to last at least five yearsImage: Koen van Weel/AP/picture alliance

In 2015, 16 years after the war ended, Kosovo's parliament voted in favor of setting up The Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office, with a specific mandate and jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes under Kosovo law, which were committed in Kosovo between Jan 1, 1998, and Dec 31, 2000.

"It was a mistake for Kosovo to agree to establish this court without a reciprocal arrangement with Serbia, that is a court with jurisdiction over 'crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes' inside Serbia," argues Daniel Serwer, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced Studies who has facilitated dialogue between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs.

"Serbia was the main miscreant in the 1990s. The one-sided nature of the Specialist Chambers and Prosecutor's Office prevents it from doing justice to the crimes Belgrade committed," he adds.

A trial against the KLA?

During the first day of the trial, Special Prosecutor Alex Whiting declared that "anyone who considers this trial as a trial against the KLA is mistaken, because it is a trial against four individuals. Nobody is above the law."

The indictment file contains geographical documents and witnesses in many areas of Kosovo, but also in northern Albania. Whiting emphasized that the intimidation of witnesses has been and remains another challenge of this process.

"Witnesses continue to be still intimidated and frightened because they are considered spies or traitors," he said. About 312 people are expected to testify during the trial. On Tuesday, Thaci and the others pleaded "fully not guilty."

Serwer thinks that the indictment exaggerates the role of the KLA in the abuses committed in Kosovo.

"The main allegations in the Council of Europe report appear to be unfounded and have been left out of the charges against the accused. The prosecutor is pursuing other, less specific, allegations against the KLA leadership quite unrelated to the Council of Europe report," he says.

The KLA's activity was part of Dick Marty's 2010 report, the "Inhuman Treatment of People and Illicit Trafficking in Human Organs in Kosovo."

Marty, a Swiss politician and former member of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe, headed a team of investigators who spent two years, from 2008-2010, collecting information and data.

Based on the material gathered, Marty alleged that during and immediately after the end of the war, organs were removed from some Serbian prisoners at a clinic in Albania, to be taken abroad for transplant. These allegations were never proven.

Last year, during an interview with a Swiss public broadcaster, Marty said that he has been under armed guard for nearly a year-and-a-half following death threats he believes originate from Serbia. The Serbian authorities vigorously denied the allegations.  

'Serbia will never accept the independence of Kosovo'

Trial will affect ties between Kosovo and Serbia

The trial is predicted to last for at least five years, considering the number of testimonies and the volume of the special prosecutor's file against Thaci and the others.

"They will be punished. But it will be a long time before there is a verdict. Their pretrial detention seems to me unjust," says Serwer.

And while the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia continues at various levels, this trial and its outcome will affect their relationship, claims Serwer.

"The trial is already exacerbating resentments in Kosovo, soothing consciences in Serbia, and making it harder for Pristina to normalize relations with Belgrade. That will get worse."

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Thaci pleads not guilty: DW reports from The Hague

Elona Elezi Author DW Albanian
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