Former Kosovo Army Leader Appears Before War Crimes Tribunal

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague, Netherlands.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — A former Kosovo military officer on Monday became the first defendant to be brought before a special court established to try war crimes during the Kosovo War. 

Salih Mustafa, an ex-Kosovo Liberation Army commander, appeared before the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague, where he declined to enter a plea on four counts of murder, torture and arbitrary detention. 

Nicknamed Commander Cali, Mustafa was arrested in Kosovo last week, marking another first for the war crimes tribunal. His charges stem from his involvement in a detention compound located in Zllash, a city just south of the country’s capital Pristina. 

When asked to speak Monday, Mustafa struggled with both the microphone and his face mask in the nearly empty courtroom. He informed the judge that he understood the charges against him, as the hearing was being translated into a language he spoke. 

“The court is a quite unique format,” Mustafa’s assigned lawyer Julius von Boné told the judges.  

The tribunal, established in 2015, is part of Kosovo’s justice system but has an international staff and is located, along with many international courts, in the Netherlands. Many feared the justice system in the southeastern European country was insufficient to try crimes that occurred during the war, in part because Kosovo politics is still dominated by those active in the conflict. 

Boné emphasized that should Kosovo law provide more protections to his client, they should supersede any norms of international criminal law. 

The parties agreed to schedule a hearing for next week, during which Mustafa is expected to enter a plea. 

When the court announced its first indictment in June, Hashim Thaçi, Kosovo’s current president, was among the 10 ex-fighters accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Thaçi compared the special tribunal to creating a court to judge Jews after the Second World War.

“Kosovo held a defensive war for its existence as a nation and attacked no one,” he told the Associated Press in 2018. 

Thaçi answered questions before the special court in July, leaving the Netherlands without being arrested despite the outstanding warrant. 

Two others, both leaders in the Kosovo Liberation Army War Veterans Organization, were arrested over the weekend. Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj were transferred to the custody of the court following a raid on the organization’s officers. Their indictments have not yet been made public. 

The group, which represents veterans from the Kosovo Liberation Army and is opposed to the court, announced it had received leaked documents from the court and urged media in Kosovo to publish the material.

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. 

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