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War crimes conviction at Kosovo court is first of its kind

Witnesses were granted anonymity to testify about the hellish conditions of a detention camp while Kosovo fought for independence in the late 1990s.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The Kosovo Specialist Chambers convicted Salih Mustafa of three counts of war crimes Friday and sentenced him to 26 years in prison, marking the strongest guilty verdict to date from a tribunal still in its infancy.

The 47-year-old Mustafa rocked in his chair while listening to the translation of the ruling through headphones, as Presiding Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia described the witness testimony against him as “graphic, rich in detail and narrated with emotion.” 

In the late 1990s, Mustafa belonged to a military force called the Kosovo Liberation Army, made of ethnic Albanians like himself who were fighting for Kosovo's independence from Serbia. Mustafa commanded a unit of fighters near Pristina, the capital.

The charges stemmed from the treatment of prisoners at the Zllash detention compound, which held mostly fellow Kosovar Albanians 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," one witness said of their experience. "Today, tomorrow, you were waiting for you to be killed." Most testified anonymously out of fear for their safety. 

Mustafa denied his involvement in any of the crimes when the trial opened last year. “I am not guilty of any of the counts of this Gestapo office,” he told the court in September 2021, speaking in his native Albanian. He then refused to return to the courtroom during a scheduled break. 

Veldt-Foglia, the presiding judge, said the trial chamber found the prosecution witness testimony compelling whereas those testifying for the defense had strong ties to Mustafa and expressed significant criticism of the court itself. Mustafa claimed he wasn’t present at the facility when the crimes took place, but Veldt-Foglia described that alibi evidence as “mostly vague or inconsistent.” The court heard from 29 witnesses, including eight victims, during the yearlong trial. 

The court did acquit Mustafa of one charge, cruel treatment, finding the conviction for torture covered those crimes. Prosecutors asked for 35 years in prison for Mustafa. 

EU authorities established the court at The Hague in 2017 to investigate atrocities during the Kosovo War. While Mustafa's verdict marks the first war crimes conviction, the chamber issued its first verdict earlier this year, finding two men guilty of witness intimidation. Though operating under Kosovo law, the court is staffed with international judges in an effort to thwart corruption. 

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.

Presiding Judge Veldt-Foglia defended the institution at the outset of Friday’s hearing. “It was the people of Kosovo, through their parliament, who choose to create and empower this institution,” she said. 

Following the verdict, the court held a status conference in a highly anticipated trial against Kosovo’s former President Hashim Thaci. Along with three co-defendants, Thaci is charged with 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those proceedings are expected to open in March 2023. 

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