(Brussels) - The Kosovo government and assembly took an important step toward justice on August 3, 2015, by creating a special court to try serious crimes committed after the 1998-1999 Kosovo war, Human Rights Watch said today. The Kosovo government and the European Union should promptly establish the court with a robust witness protection program.

On the urging of the government, the assembly approved a constitutional amendment paving the way for the court, and then a law establishing the judicial body, as well as a law to finance legal defense for those needing it.  The court will operate under Kosovo law but with a chamber abroad and internationally appointed judges and prosecutors.

“The Kosovo government and lawmakers made the right decision for justice and accountability,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “Now it’s important to take the next step and promptly establish the court, so allegations of serious crimes can be addressed by an impartial, independent and secure body.”

For the court to be credible, a strong, international mechanism for witness protection is required. Past war crimes trials against former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the ethnic – Albanian rebel group, in Kosovo and at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have been marred by witness intimidation and deaths.

The special court will adjudicate cases based on a 2010 Council of Europe report by the Swiss senator Dick Marty. The report accused some KLA members of abductions, beatings, summary executions, and, in some cases, the forced removal of human organs on Albanian territory during and after the Kosovo war.

In 2011, the European Union established an investigative body based outside of Kosovo called the Special Investigative Task Force (SITF) to investigate the alleged crimes in the Marty report.

The first lead prosecutor of the task force, Clint Williamson, announced on July 29, 2014, that he had enough evidence for indictments against some former senior KLA members who he said were responsible for an organized campaign of abductions, illegal detentions, unlawful killings, and sexual violence. He said most victims were members of minority groups – Serbs, Roma, and others – but also Kosovo Albanians considered collaborators with Serbs or, more often, political opponents of the KLA leadership.

Williamson said his findings were largely consistent with Senator Marty’s report, including allegations of a “handful” of organ trafficking cases, but he did not secure enough evidence to merit indictments for that crime. Indictments for the other crimes, including crimes against humanity, can be filed after the special court is established, he said.

In May 2015, a new lead prosecutor for the task force, David Schwendiman, a US national, was appointed.

The next step is for Kosovo to reach a host-country agreement with an EU Member State where the special court will be based. Once the court is formally established, the task force can issue indictments.