THE HAGUE, Netherlands –
An international prosecutor declared Monday that “nobody is above the law,” as the trial opened for Kosovo’s former president and three other defendants on charges including murder and torture in a case that their supporters claimed was unjustly targeting revered freedom fighters.
Hashim Thaci resigned from office in 2020 to defend himself against the charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during his country’s 1998-99 war for independence from Serbia.
“I am completely not guilty,” Thaci, who went by the nickname The Snake during the war, told judges at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers as the trial opened. The other three defendants also repeated not guilty pleas made at earlier pre-trial hearings.
The case has stirred an outpouring of support from across the political spectrum in Kosovo. On Sunday, thousands of people took to the streets to show their support for the defendants. Many Kosovars consider the Netherlands-based court an injustice and view it as an attempt to rewrite the history of their struggle for independence.
Prosecutor Alex Whiting said the KLA, a guerrilla force which battled against the powerful Serbian military, had “a very clear and explicit policy of targeting collaborators and perceived traitors including political opponents.”
Whiting said prosecutors would prove that the KLA and was responsible for hundreds of murders and illegal detentions across Kosovo and northern Albania in 1998 and 1999 and that the four accused were responsible for those crimes as military leaders of the KLA general staff.
“Most of the victims of the accused were fellow Kosovar Albanians. In their zeal to target and eliminate those persons they deemed to be opponents. The accused endorsed and implemented a policy that often victimized their own,” Whiting said, adding that the trial was about key defending principles.
“Nobody is above the law, even during wartime,” he added.
Whiting has led the prosecution office preparing the case against Thaci since late last year. He replaced Jack Smith, who was named a US Justice Department special counsel last November to oversee investigations into former President Donald Trump’s retention of hundreds of classified documents at his Florida home, as well as efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 US presidential election. Both investigations are pending, and have not resulted in criminal charges.
As the trial opened, hundreds of supporters of Thaci and the other accused gathered near The Hague’s central railway station. Many waved flags and banners, including one that read: “Don’t equal victims with the criminals!” Another proclaimed: “KLA fights for freedom.”
Vullnet Guri, who traveled from Switzerland to join the demonstration told The Associated Press: “We are protesting here for the liberation of our fighters, they fight actually only for our freedom, and it is a big injustice to put them in the same quality of the Serbian army that made genocide in our country.”
Prosecution lawyer Clare Lawson stressed that the KLA itself was not in the dock.
“The KLA is not on trial. The liberation war waged by the KLA is not on trial. These four accused are on trial in respect of their personal responsibility for crimes committed against persons who they view as opponents, a majority of whom were in fact their fellow Kosovo Albanians,” she said. “In their bid for supremacy, they entrenched a climate of fear pitting neighbors against neighbors, a climate which still persists today.”
Lawyers for Thaci and the other defendants are scheduled to deliver their opening statements on Tuesday. The first witnesses are expected to testify next week.
Defense lawyers are expected to argue that the KLA was a loosely organized guerrilla force and that the defendants had little control over local fighters and cannot be held responsible for the actions of others.
In their opening statement, prosecutors sought to refute that claim.
“Each of the four accused of wielded power, authority and influence, which enabled them to implement the common criminal purpose charged and exercise effective control,” prosecutor Matt Halling told judges.
The trial is taking place at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which is based in the Netherlands but is part of Kosovo’s legal system.
Thaci was standing trial along with Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi for allegedly committed offenses across Kosovo and northern Albania from 1998 to September 1999, during and after the war.
Most of the 13,000 people who died in the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo were ethnic Albanians. A 78-day campaign of NATO air strikes against Serbian forces ended the fighting. About 1 million ethnic Albanian Kosovars were driven from their homes.
The court in The Hague and a linked prosecutor’s office were created after a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, a human rights body, which included allegations that KLA fighters trafficked human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and fellow ethnic Albanians. The organ harvesting allegations weren’t included in the indictment against Thaci.
In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, a move that Belgrade refuses to recognize. The United States and most of the West recognize the declaration, but Serbia — supported by allies Russia and China — does not.
Kosovo-Serbia relations remained tense despite stepped-up efforts from Washington and the European Union, with a recent Western plan envisaging the normalization of their relations.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington, DC contributed