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War crimes trial of ex-Kosovo president kicks off in The Hague

Kosovo’s former leader and three co-defendants have been in pretrial detention since their arrest in November 2020.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Joining a small club of former heads of state to face international justice, Kosovo's former president Hashim Thaçi reiterated his innocence as his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity started on Monday. 

The 54-year-old and three co-defendants are facing 10 counts of torture, murder and illegal detention before a special court in The Hague for their alleged roles in atrocities committed during Kosovo’s war for independence from Serbia in the late 1990s. 

Thaçi and Jakup Krasniqi, Kadri Veseli and Rexhep Selimi were founding members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which took up arms against Serbian forces following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. All four men went on to political careers in Kosovo after the conflict ended. 

“Nobody is above the law,” prosecutor Alex Whiting told the packed courtroom at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers during his opening statements Monday.

Thaçi, wearing a grey suit and blue tie, took notes during the presentation. He and his co-defendants have been in pretrial detention for more than two years, since their arrest in November 2020. 

The war crimes tribunal is part of Kosovo’s justice system but has an international staff and is located, along with many other international courts, in The Hague. Many Serbian leaders faced prosecution at the United Nations-backed International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, but few Kosovar Albanians faced charges at the court. 

Many Kosovars, widely seen as the victims in the conflict, are opposed to the court, viewing it as an attempt to downplay the Serbian atrocities. Most of the 13,000 people who died during the year-long conflict were ethnically Albanian.

Hundreds protested at a nearby field ahead of the start of the trial, carrying black and red KLA flags, before marching to the courthouse.

Supporters of former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci and three other defendants protest in The Hague, Netherlands, on Monday, April 3, 2023, near the special court where the men are on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Thaçi, whose nom de guerre was “Snake,” stepped down as president in 2020, days after the indictment was announced. He’s one of seven heads of state to face an international court since the Second World War. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic became the first leader since the Nuremberg trials to be charged by an international court when his trial started in 2002. 

Most recently, former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo was acquitted by the International Criminal Court of crimes against humanity in 2019. He was the first head of state charged by the world’s only permanent court for atrocity crimes. 

The case against the four Kosovo men focuses on their participation in a "joint criminal enterprise ... that carried out widespread or systematic attacks,” prosecutor Claire Lawson said when reading out the charges. It took her nearly five minutes to read the list of all 10 counts. 

In their opening statements, prosecutors showed broad and varied evidence to the courtroom, ranging from KLA memos with notes from the defendants to excepts from documentaries about the conflict. In one clip, a much younger Thaçi describes how he “brought together” soldiers to form the KLA. 

Despite resistance in Kosovo to the trial and the court, human rights groups have applauded the trial.

“It offers a chance after so many years for the victims to learn what happened and highlights the pervasive impunity that still hangs over the Kosovo conflict, and more broadly over the wars in the former Yugoslavia,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. 

Almost a quarter century after the bloody Kosovo war, the court has so far convicted three people, two men for witness tampering and another KLA commander for war crimes. The trial of another former KLA commander, Pjetër Shala, started in February

Hearings will continue on Tuesday with opening statements from the defense. 

Follow @mollyquell
Categories / Criminal, Government, International, Politics, Trials

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