Trial of former Kosovo rebel commander opens in court in The Hague


THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – A tribunal set up in The Hague to prosecute Kosovo’s war crimes in 1998-99 for independence from Serbia opened its first trial on Wednesday, prosecutors say they have compelling evidence that a former rebel commander is guilty of charges including the murder and torture of suspected collaborators.

Salih Mustafa was arrested a year ago in Kosovo and sent to the Netherlands to stand trial there by the Kosovo Specialized Chambers, backed by the European Union, a branch of the country’s legal system created specifically to deal with allegations of war crimes committed as ethnic Albanian rebels united. in the Kosovo Liberation Army led a bloody conflict to separate from Serbia in 1998-99.

Senior prosecutor US attorney Jack Smith stressed at the start of the trial that his team was not targeting the KLA, Kosovo or its people or their struggle for independence, as opponents in court told him.

“Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth,” he told the court.

Prosecutors plan to call 16 witnesses to substantiate their case. The first is expected to testify next week. Defense lawyers did not make an opening statement on Wednesday.

Mustafa is charged with the war crimes of arbitrary detention, cruel treatment, torture of at least six people and the murder of one person in a detention center in Zllash, Kosovo, in April 1999. He has pleaded not guilty of all charges.

The victims were accused by KLA fighters of collaborating with the Serbs or not supporting the KLA, according to its indictment.

“Being accused of being a so-called collaborator during the war was serious, and often fatal,” prosecution lawyer Cezary Michalczuk said.

Mustafa wore a red T-shirt in court and listened to a simultaneous translation of the proceedings with headphones held over his left ear.

He left the court after the prosecution’s opening statement, angering the victims’ lawyers.

“We see this as a clear contempt and disrespect for the victims,” ​​lawyer Anni Pues said.

The trial is the first to open in The Hague tribunal which was established six years ago following a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, a human rights body, which included allegations that KLA fighters smuggled human organs taken from prisoners and killed ethnic Serbs and Albanian compatriots whom they considered to be collaborators.

Pues said the victims she represents in court have waited for more than two decades for crimes committed by KLA fighters, who are widely regarded as heroes in their home countries.

“And they are all hoping for justice to be done at last,” she said. “None of the wounds inflicted in 1999 healed.”

The court says that so far nine victims have registered to participate in the trial.

Other former rebel commanders in custody awaiting trial is former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who resigned his post last year to defend himself against war crimes charges in The Hague.

Most of those who died in the Kosovo war were ethnic Albanians. A 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbian troops ended the fighting.

Several Serbs have been prosecuted in a former United Nations war crimes tribunal for their role in the atrocities of the Kosovo war.

Smith said: “I can say with conviction that war crimes on one side do not justify war crimes on the other side.

Mustafa is accused of personal involvement in arbitrary detention, cruel treatment and torture and of command responsibility for the murder. He is also charged with involvement in the four crimes as a member of a “joint criminal enterprise”. Michalczuk showed several photos of Mustafa wearing military fatigues and a red beret.

He said the victims held at Mustafa Ran Detention Center were forced to sleep on the filthy floor of a barn and were not given enough food, water and medical attention for injuries sustained during the brutal blows.

“We submit that the evidence will leave no doubt that these crimes took place and that the accused was responsible for them,” Michalczuk told the court.

Smith told judges that witnesses in Kosovo war crimes cases face “a climate of intimidation.”

He said that the trials to be held in The Hague courtroom are an opportunity “for Kosovo to put the issues of this war behind it once and for all, an opportunity for the victims to make their voices heard and to be heard in a setting where they can express themselves. the truth without fear of reprisal or intimidation.

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