Former Kosovo president Thaci pleads not guilty to war crimes
THE HAGUE, April 3 (Reuters) - Former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci on Monday pleaded innocent to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity as his trial began at a special court in The Hague, with protesters rallying outside in support of a leader once feted by the West.
Thaci and three co-defendants face 10 charges of persecution, murder, torture and forced disappearance of people during and shortly after the 1998-99 insurgency that eventually brought Kosovo independence from Serbia and made him a hero among many compatriots at home and abroad.
Prosecutor Alex Whiting said the four had targeted political opponents, as well as minority ethnic Serbs and Roma, imprisoning hundreds across Kosovo in terrible conditions and murdering 102 of them. Most victims were members of Kosovo’s 90% ethnic Albanian majority, he said.
“There can be no justification…for arbitrarily detaining civilians and persons out of combat and subjecting them to abuse, torture, and murder…That is why the prosecution brought this case, to vindicate the rule of law and the principle that nobody is above the law, even during wartime,” Whiting said.
The four defendants, all principal leaders of the former guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and later in peacetime politics of the small Balkan country, all pleaded not guilty shortly after hearings got underway.
“I understand the indictment and I am fully not guilty,” Thaci, 54, said in court. Dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, the tall, strapping Thaci looked pale and brayer after two years in detention.
More than 13,000 people, the majority of them Kosovo Albanians, are believed to have died during the insurgency, when Kosovo was still a province of Serbia under then-strongman president Slobodan Milosevic.
Thousands of Kosovars gathered in the capital Pristina on Sunday in protest at the trial, and hundreds rallied outside the court in The Hague on Monday, holding banners with Thaci’s image and chanting “KLA” in support of the independence movement.
In Pristina, resident Nazmi Kelmendi said on Monday that “not only is the just war of the KLA being judged, the state of Kosovo is also on trial”. Another, Martin Cuni, said: “They are not only condemning only these people but they are condemning the effort, the war that the whole world supported.”
Thaci resigned as president shortly after his indictment in November 2020 and was transferred to detention in The Hague.
TRIAL COULD LAST YEARS
During his time as a KLA leader and prominent politician, Thaci worked closely with many Western leaders. Joe Biden, when he was U.S. vice president, called him “the George Washington of Kosovo” and Thaci was en route to a meeting at Donald Trump’s White House when his indictment was announced.
“Your allies are being put on trial!” read one protest banner in the rally outside the Hague court.
The trial is likely to be lengthy as prosecutors said they would need two years to present their evidence.
Proceedings began two weeks after the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal, the International Criminal Court (ICC), also based in The Hague, issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the alleged crime of deporting Ukrainian children.
They are among just a handful of sitting leaders to have been indicted for war crimes while in office.
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers, seated in the Netherlands and staffed by international judges and lawyers, was set up in 2015 to handle cases under Kosovo law against ex-KLA guerrillas.
Many Kosovars believe that the tribunal is biased against the KLA and seeks to denigrate its record in paving the way to liberation of Kosovo from repressive Serbian rule.
The court was created separately from the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), also held in the Hague, which tried and convicted mainly Serbian officials for war crimes in the Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts.
Milosevic went on trial before the ICTY but he died in 2006 before a verdict was reached.
By Ivana Sekularac
(Additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Andrew Gray; Writing by Anthony Deutsch; editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Mark Heinrich)