In-depth | Special court

The trial against the four

By - 26.04.2023

After 2 years of detention, the trial against Thaçi, Selimi, Veseli and Krasniqi begins.

It is 9:00 a.m. April 3, 2023. The curtain is raised in the guest gallery of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, the orange-shuttered building at 47 Raamweg Street, The Hague. The whispers of dozens of journalists and family members of the accused come to a halt.

Behind the curtain is a room full of people, on the right stand the accused. These are four former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA): former President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi, former deputy of Vetëvendosje (VV) Rexhep Selimi, former Assembly Speaker Jakup Krasniqi and former chairman of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) Kadri Veseli.

Selimi often turns his head towards the gallery in the direction of his wife, Shqipe Mehmeti-Selimi. Krasniqi and Veseli occasionally glance at their loved ones. The only one who never turns his head towards the gallery is Thaçi. PDK chairman Memli Krasniqi and PDK members Uran Ismaili and Ableard Tahiri sit in the gallery giving their former leader Thaçi their full attention.

Jakup Krasniqi’s daughter Gresa follows the developments below in the courtroom closely. The first day was for the Prosecutor’s Office, which for five hours listed the charges against the former KLA leaders, including charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“I am completely innocent,” says Thaçi, after standing up. 

“I express my discontent at the postponement of the start of the trial. I am completely innocent,” says Veseli. 

Selimi continues, “I understand the indictment. I plead completely innocent to all counts.” 

Out of all of them, Krasniqi speaks the most, “I don’t understand the indictment, because I have no responsibility for the crimes described. I am completely innocent.”

Attention turns to the other side of the courtroom, to the prosecutor, who describes the four men as the leaders of the “joint criminal enterprise.” He starts counting off the victims and shows images of the places where the prosecution claims hundreds of Serbs, Albanians and others were tortured or killed in Kosovo, during the war between 1998 and 1999.

There are sighs in the gallery. 

A long story

This trial started on April 3 but the story of the Specialist Chambers dates back more than a decade.

In December 2010, a report titled “Inhuman treatment of people and illicit trafficking in human organs in Kosovo” was published. The author was Swiss politician Dick Marty who produced the report for the Committee on Legal Affairs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Marty was a state prosecutor and had became known for investigating alleged CIA torture camps in Europe.  

In January 2011, Marty’s report, which alleged that serious crimes had been committed during the war in Kosovo, was adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. Immediately after the adoption of the report, the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, EULEX, established a Special Investigative Task Force, which began to investigate the issues raised in the report.

EULEX had inherited 1,200 war crimes cases from UNMIK, nearly half of which were dismissed. According to a Kosovo Law Institute report from 2020, “Amnesty of War Crimes in Kosovo,” when EULEX had executive power between 2008 and 2014 they indicted 39 Albanians, 11 Serbs, one Montenegrin and one Roma for war crimes.  

In July 2014, the EULEX Task Force announced that in their investigations they had found strong evidence that would allow them to indict several former senior KLA officials in relation to the crimes mentioned in the Council of Europe report.

The international community insisted on the creation of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, and stated that if Kosovo did not form a court, the Security Council of the United Nations Organization would.

In July 2015, after months of extraordinary pressure the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, with headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, was voted on in the Kosovo Assembly.

The Kosovo Assembly needed to approve the creation of the court with a two-thirds majority. The ruling parties at the time, PDK and LDK, alongside representatives from Srpska Lista and the non-Serb minority parties, formed a big enough block to vote through the constitutional changes necessary to create this type of court.

In August 2015, a law was adopted to establish and regulate the organization, operation and jurisdiction of this new judicial mechanism.

Under this law, the Specialist Chambers will only have jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes under international law, as well as crimes related to the Dick Marty report and its allegations of “serious cross-border crimes and international crimes committed during and after the conflict in Kosovo.”

The court’s jurisdiction is limited to crimes committed between January 1, 1998 and December 31, 2000.

The establishment of the special court was met with mixed reactions and has long been a controversial topic in Kosovo. In December 2017, PDK, alongside the political parties AAK and NISMA attempted to undo the formation of the court. This effort was stopped after pressure from the international community.

American Ambassador to Kosovo at the time Greg Delawie and other ambassadors rushed to the Assembly to squash legislative efforts to undo the Court. Delawie called the attempt “the most dangerous night in post-war Kosovo.”

Through 2020, veterans’ organizations and associated groups in Kosovo demanded a halt to the court. But the court’s investigations continued and soon people were discussing who the court would charge.

In June 2020, while Thaçi was on his way to Washington D.C., the Specialist Prosecutor sent an indictment against him for war crimes to the court. In November 2020, the Specialist Chambers published a 68-page indictment against Hashim Thaçi, Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi. Thaçi, who was president at the time, resigned immediately.

They were charged with war crimes, illegal or arbitrary detention, cruel treatment, torture, unlawful killings, crimes against humanity, imprisonment and enforced disappearance of persons.

The indictment stated that between March 1998 and September 1999, these four, along with other members of the “joint criminal enterprise shared the same goal of taking and exercising control over all of Kosovo by all means, including intimidation, ill-treatment, exercise of violence and the elimination of those they considered opponents.”

After several years of investigations, on November 5, 2020, Thaçi, Veseli, Krasniqi and Selimi were transferred to a detention center in Scheveningen, The Hague. After waiting in detention for more than two years, the trial began on April 3, when the public’s attention turned to The Hague, with TV studios buzzing for a week with debates about the war and its central figures.

A long process ahead

On the second day of the trial Thaçi was given five minutes to speak. His central argument came down to a moment when he said, “It was proved to the world that there was no organ trafficking. The war was imposed on us and I feel sorry for all the victims. I am completely innocent.”

Now the defense stepped up. The five defense lawyers argued that the KLA did not have a strict hierarchy, nor a consolidated general staff and that this means the accused cannot be held responsible for the alleged crimes.

Amer Alija, a legal analyst from the Humanitarian Law Center Kosovo, which was one of the leading non-governmental organizations documenting war crimes in Kosovo, has closely followed the first week of the trial in The Hague. 

“The prosecution,” Alija said, “through witnesses and material evidence, will try to prove that the KLA had a vertical hierarchy behind it and will try to make the connection between the subordinates who did the actions alleged in the indictment and the accused superiors.

“While the defense will try to show the opposite, that the KLA did not have a proper organizational structure and that the KLA headquarters did not have effective control on the ground.”

Kosovar lawyer Skender Musa, licensed by the Specialist Chambers for potential representation of the accused, thinks that the prosecution will have a hard time proving the hierarchical organization of the KLA.

“The entire indictment depends on the clarification of the KLA command method and the horizontal extent of the command, from the central level to the lowest levels of the military structures. Undoubtedly, this will be challenging to prove because KLA did not have a top-down command structure, not even slightly,” said Musa.

According to him, the KLA was a guerilla movement organized voluntarily by citizens in villages and local communities, who were not aware of who the commander of the KLA was and did not receive orders from a command structure.

However, at the first hearing on April 3, Specialized Prosecutor Alex Whiting, after reading the full charge, said that this is not a trial against the KLA.

“This court case does not require the KLA to proceed. It does not accuse all its members. If someone says that, they are wrong, it is false. It’s just not true. Accusations are brought against four people… that they committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1998 and 1999,” he said.

The other prosecutor, Mathew Halling, focused on the power structure within the KLA.

“Over time and with organizational development, each of the four defendants had powers, authority and influence that enabled them to implement and carry out the common goal of exercising effective control,” said Halling. “In this trial it will be important to distinguish between what the KLA aspired to do and what it actually did.”

While many predict the process could take several years in The Hague, Amer Alija said there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to dealing with the past.

According to him, if the local judiciary is also involved, indictments for war crimes in Kosovo against low-profile Yugoslav soldiers and Serbian policemen are expected to be filed in the future.

“With the entry into force of the law on trials in absentia, judicial proceedings in absentia at the Basic Court in Prishtina against Serbian superiors for some of the massacres in Kosovo are expected to begin,” he said.

The day before the trial began, thousands of citizens protested in Prishtina in support of the four accused. Many protested arguing that the court is accusing the KLA as a whole and not just specific individuals.

This is why the Special Court has been a controversial topic in Kosovo throughout the last decade. The dissatisfaction is intensified by Serbia’s lack of commitment in pursuing war criminals who were part of Yugoslav armed forces during the war in Kosovo.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague conducted trails against the former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević, and six other high officials for war crimes in Kosovo. Five were convicted, one was acquitted and Milošević died during the trial in 2006.

Meanwhile, domestic prosecutions in Serbia for crimes committed in Kosovo are limited and have omitted senior police and military officials.

According to a report by the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade and Prishtina, 13,535 people were killed or disappeared between January 1998 to December 31, 2000, including civilians and members of the armed forces. The list appearing in the Kosovo Memory Book includes 10,415 Albanians, 2,197 Serbs, 529 Roma, Bosniaks and other non-Albanians.

Meanwhile, the exact number of Albanians killed by the Serbian armed forces between 1997 and 1999 is not known. According to the U.S. State Department, evidence indicates that it is likely that around 10,000 Kosovo Albanians were killed by Serbian forces. According to the same report, during the war, Serbian forces and paramilitaries implemented a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Another Human Rights Watch report shows that during the NATO bombings, about 850,000 Kosovo Albanians were forcibly expelled from the country.

The trial of Thaçi, Veseli, Selimi and Krasniqi was preceded by the trial of Hysni Gucati, Nasim Haradinaj and Salih Mustafa. In May 2022, the Special Court found Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj guilty of obstructing justice and sentenced them to four and a half years in prison and a fine of 100 euros. Gucati and Haradinaj were arrested in September 2020, after suspicions that they had distributed classified documents of the Specialist Chambers at media conferences at the KLA veterans’ association headquarters in Prishtina.

At the end of 2022, former KLA commander Salih Mustafa was sentenced to 26 years in prison for illegal killing, arbitrary detention and torture.

The Special Court is financed by the European Union and other contributing countries such as Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and the U.S. So far, in the last seven years, more than 275 million euros have been spent on the Special Court.

A week after the opening statements, the prosecution started questioning witnesses in closed sessions. According to The Hague calendar, 81 sessions will be held in 2023, with the last one scheduled for December 18.

Feature Image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.