Two Decades on, Kosovo’s Guerrilla Boss Thaci May Finally Face Trial

The indictment filed by the Specialist Prosecutor charging Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was a long-awaited move that follows two decades of investigations into alleged wartime wrongdoings.

It was no coincidence for Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, the former guerrilla chief charged with crimes against humanity and other war crimes during and after the war in Kosovo.

On Wednesday he boarded his plane to Washington, flying to the US for a long-anticipated meeting with his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, and the US Special Envoy, Richard Grenell, to discuss future of Kosovo-Serbia relations.

As he prepared his briefing points somewhere in the skies over Europe, the press release from the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office announced that he was the first person about whom it is publicly known that an indictment has been filed for a range of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, enforced disappearance of persons, persecution, and torture.

The indictment comes after the veteran warrior-turned-politician, who has maintained a grip on decision-making in Kosovo since the war there ended in 1999, ousted the government of his opponent Albin Kurti after months of struggle, installed a new puppet government in its place and was ready to finalise a “deal of the century” with Serbia and his US allies.

In the past year, Thaci has also tirelessly met with diplomats, powerful friends, politicians and lawyers in order to remove a potential problem overshadowing his agenda for the last five years – the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, a Hague-based hybrid court set up to try former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, which Thaci led during the struggle against Serbia’s oppressive rule.

The pressure was immense, and the Hague-based prosecutor, who has otherwise remained confidential about who would be put on trial, said he had only issued “this public notice of charges because of repeated efforts by Hashim Thaci to obstruct and undermine the work of the KSC … in an attempt to ensure that he does not face justice”.

According to prosecutor Jack Smith, Thaci and his close allies “put their personal interests ahead of the victims of their crimes, the rule of law, and all people of Kosovo”.

The indictment, filed on Thaci’s 52nd birthday, on April 24, alleges that he and others are responsible for nearly 100 murders. The other crimes alleged in the indictment involve hundreds of known victims of Kosovo Albanian, Serb, Roma, and other ethnicities, and include Kosovo Albanian political opponents.

The indictment interrupted Thaci’s trip and led him to cancel the Washington meeting, but only after a pre-trial judge confirms the April submission from the prosecution can he be put behind bars to await trial.

This may happen tomorrow. Or it might be as late as this autumn. The pre-trial judge has six months from the April 24 date of the filed indictment to confirm it, reject it, or request changes.

History student who wrote Kosovo’s history

The Kosovo President has established himself as a shrewd tactician able to out-manoeuver opponents and has dominated Kosovo’s politics since the war ended – from being its first prime minister to foreign minister to president. He and his Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, have held a grip on almost every aspect of political life in former Serbian province for two decades.

Born in 1968 to a farming family in the central village of Buroja in the Drenica valley, Thaci was the seventh of nine children. He studied history at the University of Pristina and, by the late-1980s, was involved in the underground People’s Movement of Kosovo, LPK. This was an illegal political formation in the former Yugoslavia, a one-party state ruled by the League of Communists of Yugoslavia until 1990.

Founded in 1982, the LPK sought to unite Kosovo with neighbouring Albania, then also a communist state. Due to his LPK activities, Thaci fled Yugoslavia in 1993 and obtained political asylum in Switzerland, where he became a founding member of a related organization, the KLA.

He frequently travelled back to Kosovo, crossing the border illegally, to work on organising the KLA’s structure on behalf of the LPK. Most senior KLA members came from the now defunct LPK.

By 1997, Thaci was leading the KLA’s political arm and so played a pivotal role in articulating the political ambitions of Kosovo Albanians in what was now an armed fight against Belgrade rule.

NATO’s intervention in 1999 in the worsening conflict, and a bombing campaign targeting Serbian positions, brought the war in Kosovo to an end, as Serbia withdrew its forces.

With Kosovo now administered by a UN mission, UNMIK, Thaci agreed to disband the provisional government and played a key role in decommissioning and dissolving the KLA as well.

In late 1999, he was elected head of the new Party for Democratic Progress, soon renamed the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK. From then on, Thaci became one of the most relevant interlocutors for international diplomats, especially when it came to ensuring that everyone adhered to international policy in Kosovo, including the former KLA factions under Thaci’s control or influence.

He was briefly in opposition from 2001 to 2004 but returned as prime minister in January 2008. Soon after, on February 17, 2008, he read out Kosovo’s declaration of independence, endorsed by the majority of the Kosovo assembly, so becoming one of the most important figures in Kosovo history.

The PDK went on to win three consecutive elections, in 2007, 2010 and 2014. Thaci served as prime minister twice, between 2008 and 2010 and between 2011 and 2014.

To meet the constitutional rule that stipulates that the head of state cannot hold other public posts, as President, Thaci resigned from the PDK leadership. He was succeeded by his close ally, the former chairman of the assembly, Kadri Veseli, now also indicted for war crimes.

From Ponte’s memoirs to organ trafficking allegations

Public opinion about Thaci’s political achievement is sharply divided. To many Kosovars he is the founder of Europe’s youngest state. For others, he is a corrupt politician who has prevented Kosovo’s transformation to democracy. For the international community, he was almost always a trusted partner.

For Serbs, he was always a war criminal, responsible for the persecution of the Serbs in Kosovo, leading to his first war crimes indictment before courts in Serbia.

Serbia’s arrest warrant for Thaci issued in early 2000 was never taken seriously internationally, due to Belgrade’s obvious bias. After the war ended, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, began releasing indictments against various leaders, army officers, police and soldiers from all the countries of the old joint state. But Thaci got away. His name was never on the lists, despite rumours that he was being investigated.

The failure to investigate KLA leaders only came into focus after the former ICTY chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, published her memoirs. In them, she said that “the investigation of the Kosovo Liberation Army fighters appeared to be the most frustrating of all the investigations done by the ICTY”. Del Ponte was also the first to openly speak out about the witness intimidation problems that she and her team faced in these cases.

In her book, Madame Prosecutor, published in 2009, she wrote: “Witnesses were so afraid and intimidated that they even feared to talk about the KLA presence in some areas, not to mention actual crimes”. She added: “Those willing to testify had to be transferred to other countries with their entire families and many states were not willing to accept them.”

After the war in 1999, Kosovo lacked a proper police force and the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, KFOR, and the UN mission, UNMIK, couldn’t ensure security. “I am convinced that UNMIK and even KFOR officers were afraid for their lives and the lives of their missions’ members. I think some of the ICTY judges were afraid that they would become a target for the Albanians,” Del Ponte wrote.

On the basis of her memoirs, an enquiry was established led by Swiss rapporteur Dick Marty. January 2011 marked the start of what was probably Thaci’s most difficult time in politics, when the Council of Europe adopted Marty’s damning report. It accused the KLA leadership, including Thaci, who was then prime minister, of involvement in “organ trafficking, abductions and mistreatment of detainees” during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo.

The report and subsequent EU-led investigations led to the creation of a new court, the Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office, tasked with dealing with the crimes allegedly committed by the KLA against civilians and alleged collaborators with the former Yugoslav regime.

New prosecutors are following different strategy

What is clear from the statement issued by prosecutor Smith, in the absence of the full ten-count indictment, is that this prosecution has followed a different strategy to its predecessors at the ICTY.

ICTY prosecutors charged former KLA members mostly for isolated crimes, focusing on certain events and then trying to prove the connections between the indicted and the specific crime. It led to problems with witnesses, especially as they often changed their testimony. Documentation was also poor, considering the guerrilla nature of the KLA. The result was an inability to provide conclusive evidence proving the “command responsibility” of those on trial.

Prosecutor Smith and his team, many of whom are veteran prosecutors from the ICTY, are focusing instead on large-scale campaigns of murder and persecution – and are trying to prove not that as a KLA leader, Thaci was not only responsible for war crimes but also for crimes against humanity.

Crimes against humanity refer to crimes committed in the context of widespread or systematic attacks against civilians or identifiable parts of the civilian population, and can be committed in peace time, not just during conflicts, like war crimes.

The indictment alleges that Thaci, Veseli, and the other charged suspects are criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders. The crimes alleged in the indictment involve hundreds of known victims of Kosovo Albanian, Serb, Roma, and other ethnicities and include political opponents. They also include enforced disappearance of persons, persecution, and torture.

The scale of the crimes attributed to the former KLA leadership was initially revealed in 2014 by former prosecutor Clint Williamson. According to his team, certain elements of the KLA intentionally targeted minority populations with acts of persecution. These included killings, expulsions, inhumane treatment, abduction and illegal detention in camps in Kosovo and Albania, destruction of religious sites and ethnic cleansing of certain areas.

Williamson claimed that there was evidence also showing that in 1998 and 1999, the KLA was engaged in a sustained campaign of violence and intimidation directed at its Kosovo Albanian political opponents, which included extrajudicial killings, intimidation and torture.

Day in court for victims, or political persecution

The announcement of the indictment came as a bombshell in a region already troubled by instability and turmoil that have increased during the recent pandemic. The EU and US separately issued statements supporting the work of the prosecution and arguing that such indictments are path towards reconciliation in the region.

But for politicians in Kosovo, the move to indict Thaci was just politics, and was unjust.

Former PM Ramush Haradinaj, who was himself summoned by the prosecution last year as a suspect, said: “The KLA conducted a pure war, which resulted in freedom and the establishment of the Republic of Kosovo. We trust in the innocence of President Thaci, Mr Veseli and all other comrades.”

PDK head Veseli, the other person named in the indictment, was the first to respond to the announcement by the Specialist Chambers: “The accusations are completely without basis. It is also not true that we threatened the court,” he said.

“I’m worried that the true motivations of the prosecutor are political. Having in mind the timing, a couple of days ahead of the White House meeting … people are right to suspect this was not a coincidence,” Veseli added.

International human rights groups like Human Rights Watch said that the indictment of Thaçi and other former KLA leaders would advance justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during and after the 1998-1999 Kosovo war.

But they warned that a key challenge to justice remains witness protection, which has plagued so many war-crimes trials of former KLA members, both in Kosovo and at the ICTY.

“This indictment is a positive step for justice as these alleged crimes have hung over Kosovo for two decades,”Lotte Leicht, European Union director at Human Rights Watch, said. “After years of demanding justice, victims from all ethnic groups may finally get to have their day in court,” she added.

Who at the end will get their day in court remains to be seen. Hopes and stakes are high, both for Kosovo’s already polarized society, which has lurched from one crisis to another in the last five years, but also for the victims both in Kosovo and Serbia. They have been waiting for this for more than 20 years, in anxiety and with high expectations.

Meanwhile, the most spoken-about person in Kosovo today, Thaci, remains silent. He is nowhere to be found. He cancelled his US meeting – but when and how he will return to Kosovo is yet to be confirmed. His office on Wednesday insisted he would be back in Pristina on Thursday, without specifying his location.

Check Also

Can Turkey help in Ukraine crisis?

Moscow is likely to welcome a Turkish mediation effort if it serves to restrain Ukraine …