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Facing War Crimes Charges, Kosovo President Steps Down

The president of Kosovo, the small Balkan republic that gained independence following a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, resigned on Thursday after a judge confirmed war crimes charges against him.

(CN) — The president of Kosovo, the small Balkan republic that gained independence following a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, resigned on Thursday after a judge confirmed war crimes charges against him.

President Hashim Thaci, a central figure in the independence drive by Kosovar Albanians, announced his resignation during a news conference in Pristina, the capital. He said he did not want to fight the war crime charges as president.

His resignation came after a judge at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, a tribunal in The Hague set up to prosecute crimes committed during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War, upheld the charges.

In June, prosecutors for the Kosovo Specialist Chambers announced a surprise decision to indict Thaci and three other founding members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a guerilla group that fought Serbian forces. They were indicted on 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

They face prosecution in their role as commanders of forces that allegedly killed and tortured detainees, persecuted people considered opponents, arbitrarily arrested people and abused them while keeping them locked up in inhumane conditions.

The indictment is a grim window into the Kosovo War. Prosecutors accuse Thaci and the other former commanders of being “criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders.” Their guerilla forces are accused of committing crimes involving hundreds of victims of Kosovo Albanian, Serb, Roma, and other ethnicities and against political opponents. The indictment accuses the KLA commanders of endorsing the violence and being responsible for it by “participating in, facilitating, condoning, encouraging, and/or otherwise aiding in the crimes in furtherance of the common purpose.” Prosecutors also accuse the KLA leadership of seeking to cover up the crimes.

The indictment accuses KLA members of committing a mass killing on July 26, 1998, when they took about 30 detainees into the Berishe mountains and shot many of them. Earlier, on July 19, 1998, KLA forces allegedly shot and killed 13 Serb detainees near the town of Malisheve.

A Roma man died after he was tied up in the middle of Podujeve, a village, and beaten, the indictment said. He was allegedly shot two days later.

KLA forces also are accused of severely beating prisoners and subjecting them to brutal interrogations.

The indictment accuses the KLA leaders of seeking to “exercise control over all of Kosovo by means including unlawfully intimidating, mistreating, committing violence against, and removing those deemed to be opponents.”

KLA forces rounded up people deemed to be collaborating with Serbian forces or not supporting the Kosovo Albanian independence cause. The indictment accuses the KLA leadership of endorsing merciless attacks against people deemed to be “traitors” and “collaborators.”

The indictment said prisoners at one location were “hit all over their bodies with rifles, baseball bats, metal tools, and wooden sticks, and punched, kicked, and/or otherwise threatened with bodily injury and death.” In another place, prisoners were electrocuted and sometimes blindfolded and hit with “batons, pipes, and pieces of wire,” the indictment said.

Prosecutors said detainees at Prizren were burned with cigarettes and one prisoner who asked for water was forced to drink paint thinner. Also in Prizren, a KLA member ordered two prisoners to undress and have sex, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors also accused Thaci and Kadri Veseli, a prominent Kosovar politician also facing charges, of seeking to obstruct and undermine the work of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers. Prosecutors charged that the two politicians carried out “a secret campaign to overturn the law creating the court and otherwise obstruct the work of the court in an attempt to ensure that they do not face justice.”

Hashim Thaci, head of the Kosovo Albanian negotiation team and head of the Kosovo Liberation Army political directorate, center, addresses a press conference in a secret location in central Kosovo on March 13, 1999. At right is regional KLA Commander Celiku, and at left Commander in Chief of the KLA Sulejman Selimi. Thaci, a guerrilla leader during Kosovo's war for independence from Serbia in the late 1990s, was later elected president but resigned on Nov. 5, 2020, after he was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity at a special court based in The Hague. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu, File)

Jakup Krasniqi, a former KLA spokesman and veteran Kosovo politician, will be the first of the accused to appear in court. He was arrested Wednesday by the prosecutor's office and transferred to The Hague. He is scheduled for an initial court hearing on Nov. 9.

“The alleged crimes contained in the indictments filed by my office are serious crimes and in the course of seeing that justice is done, we must not lose sight of the suffering of the victims,” said Specialist Prosecutor Jack Smith in a statement. Victims of the alleged crimes may be able to participate in the trial.

The special war crimes tribunal is rejected by many Kosovars.

After Thaci announced his resignation, Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti said in a statement that “the Kosovo Liberation Army fought for the liberation of our country” and that “no one can judge our struggle for freedom.”

Thaci was the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a guerilla group that fought for independence from Serbia. After the war, he served in Kosovo's government as foreign affairs minister, parliamentary speaker and prime minister before becoming president in 2016. He has faced accusations of being involved in organized crime too.

“I will not appear before the court as president,” Thaci said at the news conference.

As the political head of the Kosovo Liberation Army, he represented Kosovo during talks to end the war. When he became prime minister in 2008, he declared the nation of 2 million people independent.

The indictment and pending trial may affect efforts to normalize ties between Kosovo and Serbia. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo and the two sides have been in talks brokered by the United States and the European Union to end the dispute. The EU is demanding that Serbia and Kosovo normalize relations if they want to become members of the EU club, the world's largest single free market.

The years-long negotiations have been contentious, in no small measure because Serbs consider Kosovo their cultural heartland and both sides are reluctant to dwell on atrocities committed by both sides during the war. 

Kosovo was the center of the Serbian empire in the medieval period and many important Serbian Orthodox monasteries were built there. But after the defeat of Serbian forces at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 by Ottoman forces, large numbers of Turks and Albanians moved into Kosovo. Serb Kosovars are today a minority.  

Serbia gained control of the region from the Ottoman Empire during the First Balkan War of 1912. It became an autonomous province under communist Yugoslavia. The growth of Albanian nationalism in the 1980s led to demands for independence and riots. With the fall of communism in 1989, Serbia revoked its autonomous status. Kosovo's Albanian leaders then organized a referendum and declared Kosovo independent.

Following that referendum, Serbia repressed Kosovar Albanians, sparking an insurgency that culminated with war in 1998. Serbia forced an estimated 800,000 ethnic Albanians from their homes and committed massacres against the Albanian population.

NATO intervened and carried out a massive bombing campaign against Serbia. It was the alliance's first war, an act not condoned by the United Nations Security Council. The bombing forced Serbia to withdraw its forces from Kosovo and led to the arrest of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes. More than 10,000 people died in the Kosovo conflict, most of them ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo is recognized by more than 100 nations and it is seeking to become a member of the United Nations and NATO.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Criminal, Government, International

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