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Prosecutors ask for 35-year sentence for accused Kosovo war criminal

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers was set up with the backing and funding of the European Union to prosecute crimes during Kosovo’s fight for independence in the late 1990s.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — During closing statements on Tuesday, prosecutors asked a special tribunal to hand down a 35-year prison sentence for a former separatist commander accused of torture and murder during the Kosovo War. 

Prosecutors at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague argued former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Salih Mustafa deserved the lengthy sentence because of the gravity of the crimes and his lack of remorse. 

“They were beaten with hatchets and iron police batons, they were stabbed with knives, they were even electrocuted,” Specialist Prosecutor Jack Smith said of the treatment of prisoners at the Zllash detention compound, an area just south of the country’s capital Pristina. Mustafa commanded the unit operating in the area. 

The 50-year-old defendant wore a grey suit while attending the hearing via video link. He has denied the charges against him, calling the court a “Gestapo office” during the opening of the trial in 2021

According to witnesses, most of whom testified anonymously, Mustafa ordered his men to arrest and torture fellow Kosovar Albanians he suspected of collaborating with Serbian forces. Those detained in the compound's agricultural building were refused food and medical treatment, kept in filthy conditions and beaten.

“You were just waiting for death, when it will come. Today, tomorrow, you were waiting for you to be killed,” one witness said. 

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.

“This is a Kosovo court, created by the will of the Kosovo people,” Smith told the three-judge panel. 

The proceedings have been controversial because the Kosovo Liberation Army was repelling invading Serbian forces that wanted Kosovo to remain part of Serbia following the break up of Yugoslavia. Several Serbians were prosecuted at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a United Nations-backed court to deal with several conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Prosecutors have also indicted former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, former parliamentary speaker Kadri Veseli and five others for crimes that include murder, enforced disappearances, persecution and torture. 

Mustafa was the first defendant to appear before the court, but the tribunal has already convicted two others for witness tampering and intimidation. Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj,  two leaders of a war veterans’ association, were the first to be found guilty when they were sentenced in May to 4 1/2 years in prison and fined 100 euros ($102) each. The pair revealed privileged material, including the personal details of protected witnesses in war crimes investigation, during a series of press conferences in 2020 after someone leaked records from the court. 

Closing arguments will continue on Wednesday with submissions from the lawyers for the victims and then the defense. 

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