Sunday, October 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Defense argues ex-president of Kosovo had no control over militia fighters

Hashim Thaçi became only the seventh head of state to face justice before an international court when his war crimes trial started this week.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Kosovo’s former president denied the war crimes charges against him on Tuesday, telling a special tribunal that he expects to be “vindicated” at the end of the proceedings. 

Defense counsel for Hashim Thaçi and three other former Kosovo Liberation Army leaders charged with multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity argued the men lacked the authority to have stopped murder and torture during Kosovo’s yearlong struggle for independence, blaming the atrocities on local militia leaders. 

“He simply did not have effective command of the KLA,” Thaçi’s lawyer, Gregory Kehoe, told the packed courtroom at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague, Netherlands.

Thaçi's co-defendants – Jakup Krasniqi, Kadri Veseli and Rexhep Selimi – are founding members of the KLA, which took up arms against Serbian forces following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. All four men went on to political careers in Kosovo after the conflict ended. They are now facing 10 counts of torture, murder and illegal detention.

“Nobody is above the law,” prosecutor Alex Whiting said in his opening statements on Monday.

Thaçi, now 54, was studying in Switzerland when hostilities first started in the early 1990s after the fall of the former Yugoslavia. He returned to join the KLA, and by the time the Kosovo War broke out in 1998, Thaçi was a senior leader in the organization. 

Despite his top role, his legal team argues that most of the power in the KLA was decentralized and those at the helm wielded little authority over the “zone commanders” who were really running the operation on the ground.

“It was the people on the local level,” Kehoe told the three-judge panel. 

During their three-hour opening, the defense showed several excerpts of documentaries and television programs discussing Thaçi’s role in the conflict. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described his appearance as that of “a high school student” during negotiations over the Rambouillet Agreement, a proposed peace agreement between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Kosovo. 

The refusal of Yugoslavia to sign the accord led to a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that ultimately ended the conflict. 

“I expect to be vindicated,” Thaçi told the court in an unsworn statement.

Wearing a grey suit and burgundy tie, he held a stack of papers with his notes as he spoke directly to the judges. He denied the charges against him and said it was regrettable that Albright, who died last year, was not available to testify during the trial as he was confident she would have spoken on his behalf. 

Many Kosovars, widely seen as the victims in the conflict, are opposed to the court, viewing it as an attempt to downplay Serbian atrocities. Most of the 13,000 people who died during the yearlong conflict were ethnically Albanian.

The war crimes tribunal is part of Kosovo’s justice system but has an international staff and is located, along with many other international courts, in The Hague. Many Serbian leaders faced prosecution at the United Nations-backed International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, but few Kosovar Albanians faced charges at the court. 

Almost a quarter century after the bloody Kosovo war, the court has so far convicted three people, two men for witness tampering and a KLA commander for war crimes. The trial of another former KLA commander, Pjetër Shala, started in February

Follow @mollyquell
Categories / Criminal, Government, International, Politics, Trials

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.