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Accused Kosovo war criminal snubs court as long-awaited trial opens

The judge presiding over Salih Mustafa's trial in The Hague saw no reason to halt the landmark proceedings after Mustafa's exit.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Wearing a red tracksuit and black hoodie, the colors of the rebel group he once commanded, the first man to be tried before a special tribunal prosecuting war crimes in Kosovo called the court a “Gestapo office” and brushed off the start of his trial Wednesday.

Salih Mustafa, nicknamed Commander Cali, has been charged with multiple counts of war crimes before the Kosovo Specialist Chambers for his role as a leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the country’s war for independence. 

“I am not guilty of any of the counts of this Gestapo office,” the 46-year-old told the judge in his native Albanian at the outset of the hearing.

The court is not an international tribunal but rather operates under Kosovo law, created by an amendment to the country’s constitution following a 2011 report from human rights organization, the Council of Europe, which claimed the KLA had engaged in widespread atrocities, including organ harvesting. The court has been moved to The Hague and employs international judges to minimize political interference. 

Members of the minority Serbian and Roma groups have accused the KLA of widespread abuse, but Mustafa’s trial focuses on crimes committed against ethnic Albanians who were considered collaborators. 

“The victims of Mr. Mustafa were all fellow Kosovar Albanians,” lead prosecutor Jack Smith told the court.

During a break before counsel for the victims delivered their opening statement, Mustafa left the court and refused to return. “We see this as a note of disrespect,” Anni Pues, lead counsel for the victims, remarked at the hearing. Following a short deliberation, the presiding judge, Mappie Veldt-Foglia, decided that the hearing could continue without Mustafa’s presence. 

Exterior view of the the Kosovo Specialist Chambers court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Nov. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

While the prosecution and counsel for the victims gave their opening statements on Wednesday, the defense has opted to reserve theirs until the prosecution has presented their evidence.

Mustafa is one of eight men charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the European Union-backed court, established six years ago to investigate atrocities during the year-long Kosovo War in the late 1990s. The country’s former president pleaded not guilty to six counts of murder and torture last year. 

Several Serbians were prosecuted at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a U.N.-backed court to deal with several conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s, but allegations of witness intimation marred the court's proceedings. The Kosovo Specialist Chambers is controversial as well, with many in Kosovo seeing the court as attacking the KLA itself, which is widely considered to be a liberating group. 

Nine surviving victims are expected to testify about harrowing conditions at the Zllash detention compound in eastern Kosovo in April 1999. Mustafa commanded the unit operating in the area, which allegedly repeatedly beat and electrocuted detainees and, in at least one case, tortured a detainee to death. 

In 1998, the Kosovo Albanian rebel group sought to oust armed forces from the then-Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, now Serbia and Montenegro, which mistreated Kosovo Albanians. The conflict, which left more than 10,000 people dead, lasted until 1999 when NATO began airstrikes and the Yugslov forces ultimately retreated. 

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