THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Kosovo’s former president appeared before a special war crimes court in the Netherlands on Monday, pleading not guilty to six counts including murder and torture.
The crimes against humanity charges stem from Hashim Thaci’s alleged role in atrocities committed during Kosovo’s war for independence from Serbia in the late 1990s.
“The indictment is completely baseless and I plead not guilty,” Thaci, whose nickname during the war was “The Snake,” told the mostly empty courtroom. Seating was limited due to Covid-19 prevention measures.
Judge Nicolas Guillou emphasized that Monday’s hearing was not a trial.
“The guilt or innocence of the accused will not be discussed or decided,” Guillou said. It is the third such hearing, intended to confirm the identity of the accused, that the Kosovo Special Chambers has held since it was established in 2015.
In an unexpected move, Thaci announced his resignation as president of Kosovo last week at a press conference in the capital city Pristina.
“I will not appear before the court as president,” he told reporters.
Jakup Krasniqi, one of Thaci’s co-defendants, also pleaded not guilty on Monday.
“I do not feel guilty nor do I feel responsible for any of the counts in the indictment,” the former spokesman for the Kosovo Liberation Army said.
The war crimes tribunal is part of Kosovo’s justice system but has an international staff and is located, along with many international courts, in The Hague, Netherlands. Many feared the justice system in the southeastern European country was insufficient to try crimes that occurred during 1998-1999 Kosovo War, in part because Kosovo politics is still dominated by those active in the conflict.
The court requires that anyone in detention be represented by counsel, so both men had lawyers present Monday. Thaci was represented by David Hooper of 25 Bedford Row, after being previously represented by Pierre-Richard Prosper, the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, when he appeared before the court for questioning in July. Hooper indicated that he will remain part of Thaci’s team.
The hearing in The Hague-based court couldn’t avoid a mention of the U.S. presidential election. In defense of his client, Hooper told the court that President-elect Joe Biden had once described Thaci as “the George Washington of Kosovo.” He said he hoped Biden, who at the time was announcing his transition Covid-19 advisory board, was watching.
The Kosovo Special Chambers indicted 10 people in June on multiple charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture and murder. In October, ex-Kosovo Liberation Army commander Salih Mustafa was the first person to appear before the court.
Kosovo’s year-long struggle for independence from Serbia left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly ethnic Albanians. The war ended in 1999, following a controversial NATO bombing campaign. While some countries, as well as the United Nations, recognize Kosovo as an independent country, many, including Serbia, do not.
Hearings will continue on Tuesday when politician and ex- Kosovo Intelligence Service chief Kadri Veseli will make his first appearance at the court.