Controversial Kosovan court begins investigation of alleged war crimes

Former Kosovan prime minister Thaci and a commander of the KLA among those facing charges

A controversial Kosovan court set up six years ago to try alleged war crimes dating back to the late 1990s begins its first trial on Wednesday – with three other cases due to follow.

One of the cases is to be taken against a former Kosovan prime minister and president Hashim Thaci, who was once described by the now US president Joe Biden as "Kosovo's George Washington".

The hybrid court, known as Kosovo Specialist Chambers, an integral part of Kosovo's legal system, was established in The Hague by order of the Kosovan national assembly in August 2015 in a bid to prevent witness intimidation.

The first case is against Salih Mustafa (48), a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought for independence from Yugoslavia between 1998 and 2000 and backed the creation of a "greater" Albania to reflect the ethnic Albanian majority in the region.


Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, responded with overwhelming violence. Notorious Serb paramilitaries led a campaign of retribution against KLA sympathisers. The bloodshed escalated until more than 13,500 people were dead and almost 1.5 million Kosovo Albanians displaced.

In 1999, when it became clear that the fighting threatened to destabilise the entire region, a Nato bombing campaign – without the support of the UN Security Council – forced the Serbs out of Kosovo and ended the fighting.

The inter-ethnic viciousness of the short war led to three separate investigations and, inexorably, to the establishment of the Hague-based court

In 2008, former UN special prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, alleged the KLA had carried out a series of atrocities, including the murder of Serb, Roma and other minority civilians, and killings of ethnic Albanians identified as collaborators.

She also claimed the KLA had harvested human organs, saying there was “credible evidence” that they had taken 300 Serb prisoners to northern Albania where they were killed in a makeshift “clinic” and their organs sold abroad.

In 2011, a second investigation led by Swiss lawyer, Dick Marty for the Council of Europe supported Del Ponte's findings, adding that Hashim Thaci had been involved in the organ trafficking.

The third probe was a joint US-EU special investigative taskforce which again verified the organ trafficking, though it found that it had happened on “a very limited scale”.

Two aggressors

In April 2016, Thaci, a hero to his followers having presided as post-war prime minister over the country's independence from Serbia, became the fourth Kosovan president – until handing himself over last November to fight charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Given such a polarizing background, the Kosovan-ordered, but Dutch-based court is inevitably accused of revisionism.

Protestors who heckled its president, Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova, during an outreach meeting in Pristina last week, accused it of "trying to change the history of the war" by portraying it as one between two aggressors rather than as a "war of liberation" from Serbia.

"We need a normal court where all allegations can be properly addressed and where all perpetrators can be prosecuted, tried and punished", said Albin Kurti (46), a former student radical elected prime minister at the head of the Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination) party earlier this year.

That reference to “all allegations” and “all perpetrators” is a coded reference to the view that the court’s single focus on KLA crimes as against all crimes committed between 1998 and 2000 may be militating against its primary role of delivering transitional justice.

In similar vein, the Atlantic Association, an organisation representing Albanian Americans, has written to president Biden – whose late son, Beau, served briefly in Kosovo – urging him to help move the court to Pristina as an acknowledgment of Kosovo’s sovereignty.

Recalling the meeting between US vice-president Biden and Kosovan prime minister Thaci in Washington in 2010, the letter recalls how – as well as the George Washington comparison – Biden praised Thaci for "helping bring democracy" to Kosovo.

Now Mr Biden is in the White House while Hashim Thaci languishes in a Dutch jail awaiting a divisive trial and an even more divisive verdict.

Whatever about justice, as the first case begins, mutual understanding between old enemies is as far away as ever.