Former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters say they will demonstrate against the pending war crimes indictment of President Hashim Thaci and other former guerrilla chiefs, calling the charges an insult to their struggle for independence.
For more than two decades since the conflict in Kosovo ended in 1999, war veteran Xhevdet Qeriqi has been leading demonstrations to demand the rights and benefits that he says his former Kosovo Liberation Army comrades deserve.
Qeriqi said he is now ready to take to the streets again after the announcement last month that war crimes prosecutors have filed a ten-count indictment to the Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers asking for the court to confirm charges against Kosovo President Hashim Thaci and nine other KLA ex-guerrillas including former parliament speaker Kadri Veseli.
The indictment is baseless, unjust and political, insisted Qeriqi. “For us, such accusations are unacceptable. They will fail to prove that the Kosovo Liberation Army committed crimes,” he said.
The charges mark the culmination of more than three years of investigation by the Hague prosecutors, details of which have, until now, been cloaked in secrecy.
President Thaci has dismissed the accusations as a pernicious attempt to tarnish Kosovo’s fight for freedom from Serbian repression, a struggle that was ultimately backed up by NATO air strikes in 1999. He said he will not resign unless a judge confirms that he will be put on trial.
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers were established in 2015 under intense pressure from the EU and the US following an explosive report in 2010 by Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty in which he accused KLA members of kidnapping, killing and unlawfully detaining ethnic Serbs and Roma as well as Albanians considered political opponents or collaborators with the Serbian state.
Several senior Yugoslav and Serbian officials were convicted by the Hague Tribunal of war crimes in Kosovo, although Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died before the verdict in his trial. Trials of former KLA fighters were plagued by witness intimidation, however, and only one was ever convicted.
Kosovo Albanians see court as biased
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers – so-called ‘special court’ – are based in The Hague and staffed by internationals but operate as part of Kosovo’s justice system, with mandate to address allegations of crimes committed by KLA members between 1998 and 2000.
The special court was voted into existence by the Kosovo parliament but Kosovo Albanians, on the whole, resent it.
Nasim Haradinaj, the deputy head of Kosovo’s War Veterans Organisation, repeated the widely-held opinion in the country that the court is biased, and also insisted that next week, war veterans and former political prisoners will protest against the indictment.
“We are not going to protest for Thaci, Veseli or the others. We are protesting for the KLA,” Haradinaj told BIRN.
“We are not threatening or forcing anyone to protest, but we want to see who really cares about the fundamental values of our war,” he added.
Officials at the Specialist Chambers have often said that individuals will be prosecuted, not the KLA or its wartime struggle.
“The Specialist Chambers will not prosecute any ethnic group. They will not prosecute any organisation. The Specialist Chambers will only prosecute and hold accountable individual persons,” the court’s president, Ekaterina Trendafilova, told BIRN in 2017.
But Haradinaj said that it is nonsense to say that the KLA was not under attack.
“All the KLA hierarchy is there… all the KLA’s chain of command is being prosecuted,” he claimed.
The prosecutors allege that Thaci and others are “criminally responsible” for nearly 100 murders, as well as torture and forced disappearances, most of them after the war officially ended.
Some of the victims were KLA recruits suspected of being traitors or believed to have belonged to or supported the KLA’s political and military rivals, especially the Democratic League of Kosovo party and the emergent Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo.
Apart from Thaci and Veseli, the leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, the names of the other suspects have not yet been revealed.
So far, more than 150 former KLA members have now been summoned for questioning as suspects or witnesses by the Hague prosecutors, and it is believed that the first confirmed indictments are not far off.
War veteran Xhevdet Qeriqi claimed that Thaci and others have been responsible many wrongdoings during their years of post-war rule over Kosovo – but said that despite that, he will take to the streets in protest because the Specialist Chambers should not prosecute KLA members while Serb war criminals walk free.
“We will show again that the court’s credibility is being undermined by its mono-ethnic target. Its achievements cannot be justice, because justice will not be served for the real victims [of war crimes],” he said.