War crimes trial of Kosovo ex-president Thaci to start

Kosovo Albanians wave Albanian flags and a flag depicting former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci as they take part in a march in Pristina on April 2, 2023. Photo by Armend NIMANI / AFP

The Hague, Netherlands -- Former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci goes on trial at a Hague war crimes tribunal Monday accused of a bloody campaign of murder and torture in the 1998-1999 independence war with Serbia.

The one-time guerrilla hero, who denies the charges, allegedly targeted perceived enemies of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), including Serbs and Roma, as the rebels sought to seize power.

Prosecutors say Thaci, who went by the nickname "Snake" during the war, is jointly responsible for more than 100 murders by the KLA ranging from executions to deaths of mistreated detainees.

The trial of Thaci, 54, and three other men starts at 0700 GMT on Monday and will hear opening statements from the prosecution and lawyers for the victims. Defence lawyers will speak from Tuesday.

They each face six counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes, including murder, torture, forced disappearances, persecution and cruel treatment.

The other defendants are former KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi, Thaci's closest political ally Kadri Veseli and key KLA figure Rexhep Selimi.

Thaci pleaded not guilty at a hearing in 2020. He had resigned as president by that time and handed himself in to the EU-funded Kosovo Specialist Chambers in the Netherlands after he was charged.

The indictment accuses Thaci and his co-defendants of being "part of a widespread and systematic attack against persons suspected of being opposed to the KLA", the court said in a statement.

The victims include "hundreds of civilians and persons not taking part in hostilities". The charges date between March 1998 and September 1999 and involve several locations in Kosovo and northern Albania.

- 'Need for justice' -

Human Rights Watch said the trial highlighted the "ongoing need for justice" nearly a quarter of a century after the war ended.

"It offers a chance after so many years for the victims to learn what happened and highlights the pervasive impunity that still hangs over the Kosovo conflict," said HRW Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson.

Thaci's rebel KLA battled Serb forces for the independence of the southern province in a bitter conflict that claimed more than 13,000 lives.

A NATO air campaign finally forced the Serbs to withdraw.

After downing his guns Thaci joined politics, leading then US vice president Joe Biden to once hail him as the "George Washington of Kosovo".

Rebel leaders of the KLA went on to dominate political life in Kosovo.

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers was set up in 2015 after a 2010 Council of Europe report linked Thaci to organised crime during and after the war.

In the years since, he has also faced accusations of corruption, clientelism and cynical politicking that blighted Kosovo's first decade of independence.

The high-security court operates under Kosovo law but is based in the Netherlands to shield witnesses from intimidation in Kosovo.

The tribunal issued its first ever war crimes conviction in December, sentencing former KLA commander Salih Mustafa to 26 years in jail for running a makeshift torture centre.

It has also jailed two Kosovo ex-rebels, Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj, for intimidating witnesses.

© Agence France-Presse

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