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Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi during a press conference in Kosovo capital Pristina on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019.  ©2019 Visar Kryeziu/AP Photo

(Brussels) – The indictment made public on June 24, 2020 against Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi and other former Kosovo Liberation Army leaders advances justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity during and after the 1998-1999 Kosovo war, Human Rights Watch said today.

The statement from the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office, which announced the indictment, says that it covers 10 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, enforced disappearances, persecution, and torture. It alleges that Thaçi, Kadri Veseli, another former KLA commander, and unknown “others” are “criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders.” The victims of these crimes include Kosovo Albanians, Serbs, Roma, and people of other ethnicities, as well as political opponents.

“This indictment is a positive step for justice as these alleged crimes have hung over Kosovo for two decades,” said Lotte Leicht, European Union (EU) director at Human Rights Watch. “After years of demanding justice, victims from all ethnic groups may finally get to have their day in court.”

During the war, Thaçi served as political head of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. After the war, he served as prime minister and was elected president in 2016.

A key challenge to justice remains witness protection, which has plagued so many war crimes trials of former KLA members, both in Kosovo and at the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Human Rights Watch said.

The need to secure witnesses and evidentiary material was the main reason the investigations for these cases and the special court have been based abroad, at first in Brussels and then in The Hague. The court that will hear these cases, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, operates under Kosovo law but with international judges and prosecutors. The court’s pretrial chamber must confirm the indictment before a trial can begin.

The prosecutor published the indictment three days before Thaçi and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić were to meet in Washington to discuss Kosovo-Serbia relations. A statement by President’s Thaçi’s office said he had “interrupted the official trip.”

The prosecutor said it was necessary to announce the indictment now because of repeated efforts by Thaçi and Veseli “to obstruct and undermine” the court’s work, including “a secret campaign to overturn the law creating the Court and otherwise obstruct the work of the Court in an attempt to ensure that they do not face justice.”

In November 2019, Thaçi wrote to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking the US to change the court’s mandate and location. In a response that was leaked to the media, Pompeo reiterated the US government’s support for the court and said that Kosovo would suffer consequences if it failed to cooperate. Changing key features of the court, he said, “would seriously damage Kosovo's international credibility and standing … and cloud Kosovo's future as a member of the Euro-Atlantic family and international community.”

Despite these comments, the US has actively worked to undermine international justice and accountability for war crimes by attacking the International Criminal Court, including a June 11, 2020 Executive Order that authorized sanctions and travel bans that could be used against ICC personnel and others assisting the court.

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers has jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other crimes under Kosovo law related to allegations made in a 2010 Council of Europe report. That report accused some senior former members of the KLA, including Thaçi and Veseli, of bearing responsibility for abductions, beatings, summary executions, and, in some cases, the forced removal of human organs to sell as transplants on Albanian territory during and after the Kosovo war.

Based on the Council of Europe report, the EU, with strong support from the US, created the Special Investigative Task Force (SITF) to investigate the allegations with an eye toward prosecution. The SITF chief prosecutor presented his general findings in 2014, including on witness intimidation. The EU then created the specialist chambers in The Hague to adjudicate the cases.

In August 2015, Kosovo’s parliament approved a constitutional amendment to allow the operation of the foreign-based court and a law formally establishing the body. Some Kosovo politicians tried to backtrack from those commitments in January 2018 but they met fierce resistance from the EU and the five members of the so-called Quint Member States – the US, UK, Germany, France, and Italy.

The UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal tried 13 people for alleged war crimes in Kosovo. Five senior Serbian or Yugoslav officials were convicted and one acquitted, and the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died during his trial in 2006. Two ethnic Albanians were convicted and four acquitted, including former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. The ICTY ceased operations in December 2017.

“The Kosovo indictment moves victims, survivors, and their families one step closer to learning the truth about the crimes committed against them in a credible process,” Leicht said. “It’s also a pointed reminder that justice can reach those who once seemed beyond its reach.”

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