THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Long before his own indictment, Pjetër Shala’s name had come up repeatedly in prosecutions tied to Kosovo’s war of independence. The former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army was considered a suspect at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations court of law that dealt with crimes committed during the 1990s-era conflicts in the Balkans, as well as in Kosovo national court proceedings.
Shala is accused of both participating in and overseeing the abuse of individuals being detained at a former metal factory in Kukës, Albania, in 1999. “He was involved in all aspects of the crimes,” prosecutor Alex Whiting said Tuesday of the defendant known by his nickname Commander Wolf, delivering his opening address at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers.
The 59-year-old has denied any involvement in the four counts against him, which include murder and torture. "I do not accept anything, it's all fabricated," Shala told the three-judge panel, speaking in his native Albanian.
Most of the victims were fellow Kosovo Albanians who were suspected of collaborating with the Serbs. Eight of them are participating in the trial against Shala. “Their days and nights were full of suffering and fear,” their lawyer, Simon Laws, 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 Hague. 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.
At the outset of the hearing, presiding Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia took five minutes to warn the legal teams about taking care to not reveal confidential information about victims or witnesses. He also described a convoluted process to have information removed from the courtroom broadcast and transcript. As with most international proceedings, the livestream is broadcast with a delay to ensure privacy.
The institution has so far convicted three people, two men for witness tampering and another KLA commander for war crimes. The trial of Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s former president, is set to start in April.
Some 13,000 people were killed during Kosovo’s fight for independence from Serbia in the late 1990s. Most of the victims were ethnic Albanians. The war ended in 1999, following a controversial NATO bombing campaign.
Shala's trial opens amid rising tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti called on Western powers to back off a pressure campaign to get his country to acquiesce to the creation of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities, an effort to coordinate health care and education in northern Kosovo, a region with an ethnically Serb majority.
In late December, Serbia erected roadblocks along the border, despite calls for deescalation. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic claimed the Kosovo government was planning a campaign of violence against ethnic Serbs.
Shala's trial will continue Wednesday with opening statements by the defense.
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