Kosovo Sets Off Clash Over War Crimes Court
Posted January 13, 2018 1:44 p.m. EST
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Efforts by Kosovo to suspend a war crimes court set up to prosecute atrocities committed by ethnic Albanians during their independence struggle are threatening relations with Western allies who backed Kosovo’s split from Serbia, European and U.S. officials have warned.
The court, based in the Netherlands, was created in 2015 by Kosovo’s parliament at the urging of the country’s Western allies. With a team of international judges and prosecutors and operating under Kosovo’s jurisdiction, it is expected to hear war crime cases against former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrillas who fought in the 1998-99 war to break away from Serbia.
Former members of KLA have taken up positions of power in Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian country of 1.8 million people, and now largely make up its economic and political elite, including the current president and prime minister.
In December, a group of lawmakers, mostly KLA veterans, tried to rush through a vote in parliament that would suspend Kosovo’s law that regulates the court. The vote never took place, but its sponsors claimed to have the support of President Hashim Thaci, who was previously accused of leading an organized crime network.
Local news media have reported that indictments are imminent and that some leading political figures could face arrest. When lawmakers return Monday after a winter recess and parliament reconvenes, the United States, the European Union and other Western allies will be watching.
The court is viewed by world powers as a vital prerequisite for regional reconciliation in the aftermath of the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s. But the moves to halt the court before it has even begun hearings have infuriated Kosovo’s Western backers.
They warned the country’s leaders against sabotaging the rule of law, and the harshest criticism has come from the country’s allies, which nearly 19 years ago led a NATO bombing campaign to wrest Kosovo from the violent oppression championed by Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s former strongman.
The United States said in a Jan. 4 statement signed by Germany, Britain, Italy and France that any move to stop the court’s work risked “all that Kosovo has achieved.”
“We condemn such a move, and anyone who supports it will be rejecting Kosovo’s partnership with our countries,” the statement added, warning of “severe negative consequences” — including Kosovo’s integration into the European Union and NATO.
The European Union gave the court funds for five years when it was created. Recently, the bloc’s special representative to Kosovo, Nataliya Apostolova, declared on Twitter that any abrogation of the law establishing the court would be “a dangerous move undermining the rule of law and credibility of Kosovo as EU partner.”
“It’s the most serious and dramatic clash between the highest state institutions of Kosovo and the West,” said Agron Bajrami, editor of Koha Ditore, one of Kosovo’s largest daily newspapers. The persistent attempts against the court are a signal of “panic within the ranks of Kosovo leadership,” he said.
And Kosovo leaders’ unusual defiance of the United States — the “defenders and guardians of our independence,” Bajrami said — is perhaps an indication that “some of them expect to be indicted.”
Some former KLA commanders, including Thaci, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and the parliament speaker, Kadri Veseli, are said to be spearheading the efforts to repeal the law regulating the court, known officially as the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office.
Some citizens in Kosovo have expressed concerns that their leaders are working for personal gains rather than the national interests. Many say that former guerrillas who have dominated the government since last year’s election have failed at leading the country, which has a significant Serbian minority. They complain bitterly about the lack of legal protections and civil rights, along with endemic and institutional corruption.
But even among the most vocal critics in the ethnic Albanian majority, it is hard to find anyone who would dispute the former guerrilla fighters’ role in liberating the country from oppression. Putting them on trial, many say, would be like trying to revoke Kosovo’s independence.
“We totally reject trying KLA members for crimes on an ethnic basis,” said Albin Kurti, a lawmaker and former leader of the largest opposition movement, Vetevendosje. “It’s harmful for our state internally and for our nation externally.”
“We opposed that court then, and we will oppose it now,” Kurti said. He added that his movement, which has 32 seats in parliament, would not cease its efforts to bring the country’s current leaders to justice for what he said were “crimes committed in peacetime.”
The court is supposed to conduct trials stemming from a three-year criminal investigation by an EU task force set up in 2011 and led by a U.S. diplomat, Clint Williamson. The inquiry followed up on accusations — documented in a 2010 report by the Council of Europe, an independent body dealing with human rights abuses — that the KLA, now disbanded, had violated international law.
In July 2014, Williamson presented findings that said senior KLA members had persecuted ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanian political opponents after the 1998-99 Kosovo war, and that they had singled out minority populations with acts that included “unlawful killings, abductions, enforced disappearances, illegal detentions in camps in Kosovo and Albania.”
The task force accused Thaci of having led a crime network, the Drenica Group, that flourished in Kosovo and Albania and smuggled human organs, weapons and heroin during and after the war. Thaci has denied the accusations.
Three years ago, after becoming president, he was instrumental in supporting the law creating the war crimes court. Now, he is supporting efforts to stop the court, partly to protect himself, experts say, and partly to preserve the long-standing narrative that the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo were victims, not perpetrators of wartime atrocities.
Separately, in December he pardoned three former KLA members convicted of killing an entire Albanian family in 2001 because the father was suspected of working for the Serbian police.
It is not clear whether Kosovo’s 120-seat parliament will vote on repealing the law on the court. Two-thirds of lawmakers will have to support the repeal for it to pass, because it would require amending the constitution. Western powers have always been adamant that Kosovo, like other countries in the region, has to come to terms with the Balkan wars. France and Germany sent envoys to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, in what appeared to have been an effort to step up pressure on leaders to refrain from attempts to amend the Constitution.
“Anyone suspected of committing war crimes was to be tried, regardless of ethnicity or nationality,” said James Ker-Lindsay, a professor of politics and an experts on the Balkans at St. Mary’s University in London.
“Nobody,” he added, “got a blank check on war crimes.”
But Thaci told the Voice of America’s Albanian Service on Wednesday that he would be bound by the constitution to sign any legislation to abolish the court if parliament passed the measure.
Asked whether he was concerned that he might be charged with war crimes, the president said he was “not afraid of justice.”