The first accused of war crimes in Kosovo describes the court that tries him as a "Gestapo office"
Salih Mustafá, former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, this Wednesday in The Hague.POOL / Reuters

The Special Court for Kosovo on Wednesday started the trial against Salih Mustafá, 49, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Ethnic Albanian, Mustafa is accused of murder, illegal detention, cruelty and torture of prisoners perpetrated in April 1999. “I am innocent of the charges presented by this Gestapo office,” he told the judges, referring to the police. Nazi secret. Afterwards, the rest of the hearing has declined to be present.

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This is the first trial since, in 2015, the court was created to try war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed between 1998 and 2000 during the conflict between the KLA guerrillas and Serbian troops from the former Federal Republic. from Yugoslavia to achieve independence, declared unilaterally in 2008. Kosovo was a region of Serbia and the war ended in 1999 with the withdrawal of troops by former President Slobodan Milosevic after the NATO bombings.

The armed conflict between Serbia and Kosovo saw mass violations of human rights and the fighting caused some 10,000 deaths and close to a million refugees. The court is governed by international justice incorporated into Kosovar law and is located in The Hague (Netherlands) at the request of the prosecution, which seeks to protect witnesses. Several of the accused are considered heroes by their compatriots.

Dressed in sportswear and a reddish T-shirt, Mustafá has listened to the allegations of the prosecutors swinging at times in his chair, with smiles and gestures of surprise, based on the images that were shown to illustrate the case. When he was arrested last year, he was an advisor to the Kosovar Ministry of Defense and had appeared in several images in his old campaign uniform.

The chief prosecutor, Jack Smith, explained that the members of the KLA were ethnic Albanians and recalled that the victims “were fellow Kosovar Albanians who hindered the plans of the guerrillas due to their different political opinions, which earned them to be accused of collaborating with the enemy ”. Mustafa led a group of between 500 and 600 subordinates who operated about 20 kilometers from the capital, Pristina, and the events under trial occurred between April 1 and 19, 1999. During those days, the former commander and his men at least six people were held in illegal detention in a stable. “They were deprived of water, food, toilets, beds and medical attention. They were beaten and shocked, and were burned, ”Smith said. They were also subjected to psychological torture, “with death threats, humiliation, intimidation, harassment and confessions obtained by force.”

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Accused of being a member of a “joint criminal enterprise”

The prosecution has indicated the criminal responsibility of Mustafa because “he committed the crimes, or instigated and was complicit in them, as a member of a joint criminal enterprise.” In her turn to allege, Anni Porque, representative of the victims, recalled that these “have been ignored or marginalized while the KLA guerrillas are presented as heroes.” He also pointed out that “the struggle for independence is not judged, although there is another reading of the glorious liberation war in Kosovo.”

The term “joint criminal enterprise” has generated rejection in the Kosovar media, which sees it as a way of suggesting that the KLA was a criminal organization. However, the prosecutor Smith has responded to the criticism by arguing that they are unaware that it was “a clean war in search of independence, and therefore the KLA could not err ”. On the contrary, he added, “this is an opportunity to show the international community that justice can be done and contribute to the understanding of what happened and the possible healing of the wounds.”

Among the members of the KLA awaiting trial is the former Kosovar president, Hashim Thaçi, who resigned in November 2020, after this same court confirmed the accusations against him for war crimes committed between 1998 and 1999, when he was commander. of the guerrilla. The prosecution holds him responsible for around 100 civilian deaths, including Kosovar Albanians, Serbs, members of the Roma community and political rivals. Also to participate in torture, persecution and forced disappearances.

In 2010, the UN International Court of Justice concluded that Kosovo’s declaration of independence “does not violate general international law”, then underlined “the exceptionality of the situation that preceded the Kosovar secession in 2008”. In 2011, a Council of Europe report singled out KLA guerrillas for trafficking the organs of their Serbian prisoners. The prosecution is expected to present its case against Salih Mustafá – including 16 witnesses – until October. From then on, the defense’s turn may be opened.

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