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Kosovo war veterans argue for reversal of witness tampering convictions

The tribunal hearing the appeal operates under Kosovo law but is located in The Hague and staffed with international judges and lawyers in an attempt to prevent corruption.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Lawyers for two leaders of a Kosovo veterans’ association argued Thursday their clients were wrongly convicted of witness intimidation and asked a special court created to prosecute crimes in the country's war for independence to overturn its guilty verdict.

Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj, the former chair and deputy chair of the Kosovo Liberation Army War Veterans Association, respectively, say their convictions, the first from the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, were wrongful and the prosecution overstepped its mandate. 

The pair were charged with witness intimidation and leaking confidential information after they released privileged material, including the personal details of protected witnesses in war crimes investigations, during a series of press conferences in 2020. It is unclear how they obtained the documents, which they say appeared at KLA headquarters. 

“Courts try cases but occasionally cases try courts,” Gucati’s lawyer, Toby Cadman, said during the hearing. 

The controversial court, which operates under Kosovo law but is located in The Hague and staffed with international judges in an effort to thwart corruption, has been criticized for its failure to safeguard witness identities and for prosecuting people seen as war heroes. 

Haradinaj, in a blue suit and red tie, was present in the courtroom while Gucati participated via livestream. He has been in a wheelchair following surgery in October. His family told local media that he need an operation on a wound he sustained fighting during the conflict in the late 1990s. 

The men were sentenced in May to 4 1/2 years in prison and fined 100 euros ($105) each.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Jack Smith, was recently tapped by the U.S. Justice Department to head criminal investigations into former President Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

More than 10,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, died during the war in Kosovo. About 1 million were driven from their homes before a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbia to pull its troops out of the country and cede control to the United Nations and NATO.

The hearings come amid escalating tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Plans to start issuing fines to Kosovar drivers with Serbian plates have enflamed a delicate peace. Thousands of NATO peacekeeping forces in Kosovo have been put on alert. 

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