‘Leaked files, organ removal and irrepressible anger’: What’s behind the Kosovo war crimes probe?

On 26 September, European Union security officers raided the office of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) veterans in Pristina, Kosovo, and led its president, Hysni Gucati, away in handcuffs.

It was the culmination of a busy – and at times bizarre – fortnight in Kosovo, where an international court based in The Hague is probing war crimes allegedly committed during – and in the aftermath of – the Balkan nation’s two-year war with Serbia more than two decades ago.

On September 22, Gucati announced that his organisation, which represents the Kosovar veterans of that conflict, had been handed files belonging to the international court by an unidentified person. It was the third time it had happened in two months.

He then offered the files, which apparently named President Hashim Thaci and other leading KLA figures as well as charges against them, to journalists.

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which is probing claims that KLA members committed war crimes during and after the war, said that the veterans association was aiming to “undermin[e] the proper administration of justice.”

Less than 24 hours after Gucati was arrested and sent to the Hague his deputy, Nasim Haradinaj, was also detained in Pristina, “for […] intimidation of witnesses, retaliation and violation of secrecy of proceedings,” according to a KSC statement.

On the one hand, the charges against Gucati and Haradinajis are a sideshow to another arrest in Kosovo last week, that of former KLA commander Salih Mustafa, on war crimes charges. Mustafa is accused of arbitrary detention, torture and murder at a detention centre in April 1999.

On the other, Gucati and Haradinaj – both outspoken critics of the Kosovo tribunal – represent one of the court’s biggest challenges, probing war crimes allegedly committed not by the losers of a conflict, but by the winners: the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Who are the KLA?

The KLA began life in 1996 as radical guerilla force opposed to Serbian control of Kosovo, then a province of Serbia but with a substantial ethnic Albanian majority. Internationally, the KLA – which carried out attacks on Serbian police stations and politicians, was regarded as a terrorist organisation, and was included on the U.S. list of proscribed organisations.

That all changed in 1998, when Serbian forces launched a bloody crackdown on the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo. The KLA became the main player in the struggle for Kosovan independence, winning the backing of the U.S. and benefitting from a massive influx of cash and support from the Albanian diaspora, shocked at Serbia’s actions in Kosovo.

When NATO began airstrikes on Serbian forces to end the conflict in 1999, the KLA fought the battle on the ground. In June 1999, when the conflict ended and Serbia pulled out of Kosovo, the KLA agreed to be disarmed and disbanded and international peacekeepers were brought in.

During the war, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic initiated a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, forcing hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians to flee to neighbouring countries. In 1999, Milosevic was indicted on war crimes for Serbia’s actions in Kosovo as well as during the war in Bosnia between 1991 and 1996. He died in 2006 while awaiting trial at The Hague.

Then what happened?

Although the KLA was disbanded as a military force after the war, its commanders and leaders went on to become major players in Kosovo, not least after the country declared independence from Serbia in 2008. First among them Hashim Thaci, the first prime minister of independent Kosovo and since 2016 its president. During the war, he led the political wing of the KLA.

Other senior figures in the KLA went on to hold the top jobs in Kosovo after the war, including Agim Ceku, a KLA commander who was prime minister from 2006 to 2008, and Kadri Veseli, a former speaker of the Kosovan parliament who was one of the movement’s founders.

Why do I recognise those names?

One of them is the president of Kosovo and over the last 12 months, all of them have been indicted for war crimes.

Thaci’s was perhaps the most dramatic, coming as it did as the Kosovan president was actually on his way to the U.S. for talks with U.S. President Donald Trump aimed at normalising relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which has never recognised Kosovo’s independence.

All the men indicted by the special court have denied the allegations, with Thaci going as far to say he will resign immediately if the indictment is confirmed by pre-trial judges.

How did this all start?

Back in 2008, right after Kosovo declared independence, Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) from 1999 to 2007, published her memoirs: Madame President: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity.

In it, she alleged not only that serious crimes had taken place during the conflict in Kosovo against Serb nationals who had remained in Kosovo after the war, but that these crimes had not been seriously investigated. Major figures in the post-war Kosovar government were involved.

As well as abuse, murder and disappearance of prisoners at a wide-ranging network of KLA detention facilities in northern and central Albania, Del Ponte highlighted claims that organs were removed from some prisoners at a medical clinic in Albania, transported abroad and sold.

Then what happened?

Del Ponte’s claims provoked an investigation led by Council of Europe MEP Dick Marty, which in December 2010 backed the accusations of organ trafficking and implicated leading KLA figures.

Among them, it named Thaci, which it said was head of a faction within the KLA known as the Drenica Group. By 1998, it said, Thaci’s not only had support within Kosovo, but had become preferred partner in Washington: an endorsement which, Marty claims, made him “untouchable”.

Marty alleged that once the Serb security forces withdrew from Kosovo in the face of a NATO bombing campaign in June 1999, the Drenica group and other factions had “unfettered control of an expanded territorial area in which to carry out various forms of smuggling and trafficking.”

“As the Serb police and paramilitary forces retreated from Kosovo, KLA units from northern Albania were deployed into Kosovo with the ostensible objective of “securing the territory”, but fuelled by an irrepressible anger, and even vengeance, towards anyone whom they believed had contributed towards the oppression of the ethnic Albanian people,” Marty said.

“Serb inhabitants of predominantly ethnic Albanian communities quickly became targets for revenge,” he wrote, adding that as well as Serbs, Roma and other minorities were listed as potential collaborators, as were ethnic Albanians of rival clans to the KLA elite.

Many of these people were held in KLA detention facilities in southern and northern Albania, the report claims, where local commanders were “a law unto themselves”. As well as being interrogated, many were beaten, mistreated and terrorised by their captors, Marti said.

It also backed Del Ponte’s allegations of organ trafficking, arguing that testimonies “spoke credibly and consistently of a methodology by which all of the captives were killed, usually by a gunshot to the head, before being operated on to remove one or more of their organs.”

What happened next?

Marty’s claims led to the setting up of the Special Investigative Task Force (SITF) in January 2011. Based in Brussels and funded by the European Union, it began investigating the allegations in the Marty report and in 2014 reported that organ harvesting had taken place, but ‘on a limited scale’.

In 2015, the Kosovan parliament – somewhat reluctantly – agreed to set up a special court to deal with the allegations and, in 2016, the newly-established Specialist Chambers and the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office, based in The Hague, began its work.

But although the international court was given a mandate by Kosovo’s parliament, its welcome has not been warm in Kosovo, particularly among those who were part of the KLA. First among its critics has been the KLA veterans association and its president, Gucati.

Speaking before his arrest, he said: “To us, the court and its actions are unacceptable.”

What now?

The international court has been extremely tight-lipped about what is coming next. Moreover, the Thaci and Veseli indictments are only preliminary and will have to be approved by a pre-trial judge.

Although the allegations against Mustafa are serious, he was a relatively low-level commander in the KLA with very little role in Kosovan politics after the war.

As for the court, it recently had to appoint six new international judges, in addition to the 17 it already has, but after five years is yet to commence a single trial in relation to the charges.

Why is this important?

Marty’s report may not be popular with many in Kosovo – and maybe over a decade old – but the arguments the Swiss lawmaker made back in 2010 seem as pertinent today as they were then.

“The appalling crimes committed by Serbian forces, which stirred up very strong feelings worldwide, gave rise to a mood reflected as well in the attitude of certain international agencies, according to which it was invariably one side that was regarded as the perpetrators of crimes and the other side as the victims, thus necessarily innocent. The reality is less clear-cut and more complex,” he said.

“There cannot and must not be one justice for the winners and another for the losers. Whenever a conflict has occurred, all criminals must be prosecuted and held responsible for their illegal acts, whichever side they belonged to and irrespective of the political role they took on.”

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