Kosovo Political Parties Shun Campaign to Abolish Hague War Court

Kosovo Liberation Army veterans are calling for the abolition of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, a Hague-based war crimes court set up to try former guerrillas – but the country’s main political parties refuse to openly back the initiative.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci posted a video message on Facebook this week urging lawmakers to support the extension of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers’ mandate.

“Politics should not interfere in justice and justice should not interfere in politics either,” Thaci said.

His statement may have appeared unusual because he himself could end up in the dock at the Hague-based war crimes court, which was set up to try wartime and post-war crimes committed by Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA fighters from 1998 to 2000.

Prosecutors announced in June they have filed a ten-count indictment to the Specialist Chambers asking the court to confirm charges against Thaci and nine other KLA ex-guerrillas including former parliament speaker Kadri Veseli.

In the wake of the announcement, Kosovo’s War Veterans Organisation has called for the Specialist Chambers to be abolished, repeated the widely-held opinion in the country that the so called ‘Special Court’ is biased because it is focused on trying ethnic Albanians, not Serbs who committed war crimes in Kosovo.

“We are asking to change the mandate of this court because it is an unjust mechanism against the KLA,” Nasim Haradinaj, deputy head of the War Veterans Organisation, told BIRN.

The Special Court is a ‘hybrid’ institution – it is part of Kosovo’s judicial system but based in the Netherlands and staffed by international. It was established abroad because of failures to prosecute KLA fighters in Kosovo itself, and to try to avert problems of witness intimidation.

Kosovo lawmakers voted to set up the Special Court in 2015, under heavy pressure from the US and the EU. Canvassed by BIRN, the country’s main political parties did not offer backing for the KLA veterans’ demand for it to be abolished – even if they agree that the court is biased.

Rexhep Selimi is head of the parliamentary group at Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), the biggest opposition party in the legislature.

Vetevendosje MPs voted against the establishment of the Special Court but Selimi told BIRN that the veterans’ initiative was misplaced because the court can only be abolished by constitutional changes.

“War veterans should bear in mind the court was established by constitutional changes with two-thirds of [MPs’] votes, and after an international agreement,” he explained.

Bedri Hamza is head of the parliamentary group of the Kosovo Democratic Party, PDK, the party founded by Thaci, whose leader Kadri Veseli is listed in the prosecutors’ indictment.

The PDK voted to establish the Special Court but members of the party have said they support the war veterans’ initiative to abolish it.

Hamzi declined to say whether the PDK would openly support the initiative, calling it a “hypothetical situation”.

“At this moment we don’t see any initiative in parliament yet. If we have one… we will sit and discuss it. For the moment we cannot declare if we truly support it or not,” Hamza told BIRN.

Besa Gaxherri, an MP from the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, the main party in the current government, said that the LDK will not support any initiative to abolish the Special Court.

“This court was established and is continuing to work, so I think that such an initiative is unreasonable and does not go in Kosovo’s favour. We know that there might be some specific groups which could have an interest in taking this idea forward but we don’t think that it is now the time to support any idea to abolish this court,” Gaxherri told BIRN.

“We believe that this court and its mandate is not against the KLA and its war because its resistance [to Serbian forces] was supported by NATO itself,” she added.

EU warns of threat to rule of law

The European Union has warned that there will be consequences for Kosovo if the Specialist Chambers’ mandate is changed, saying that such a move would undermine the rule of law in Kosovo.

“The Specialist Chambers and the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office are an important demonstration of Kosovo’s commitment to the rule of law, which in turn is a core element for Kosovo’s progress on the European path and for the EU engagement with the Western Balkans as a whole,” an EU spokesperson told BIRN.

“Any attempt to repeal or amend the mandate of the Specialist Chambers would seriously undermine this commitment and would jeopardise the joint [EU-Kosovo] work on the rule of law done over the past years,” the spokesperson added.

The Special Court’s establishment came in response to serious allegations raised by a Council of Europe report in 2010 written by Swiss senator Dick Marty about crimes allegedly committed by KLA members.

Between 2012 and 2014, a European Union task force looked into Marty’s allegations and concluded there was enough evidence for prosecutions for offences like murders, abductions, illegal detentions and sexual violence.

When MPs voted in 2015 to establish the new court, Kosovo’s political leaders explained it as a way to clean up Kosovo’s image.

But then in December 2017, President Thaci, who initially backed the new court, supported an initiative by more than 40 MPs to abolish it. The initiative fizzled out under pressure from Kosovo’s Western backers, however.

The court has however remained deeply unpopular among many Kosovo Albanians because it is seen as an attack on the KLA’s righteous struggle, and frustration has continued to grow with what is seen as a biased institution that will only try ethnic Albanians while leaving many wartime crimes by Serbs unprosecuted.

Kosovo’s War Veterans Organisation insist that without prosecuting Serb suspects, justice cannot be done.

“Real justice cannot be served by a monoethnic court,” argued Haradinaj.

But Rexhep Selimi of Vetevendosje argued that it is now too late to do anything to abolish the Special Court.

“War veterans’ organisations pretend to be worried now, but they should have been worried at the time when the Special Court was established,” he said.

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