Monday, March 14, 2005

Former Kosovo premier pleads not guilty before war crimes court

THE HAGUE (AFP) - Former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj pleaded not guilty before the UN war crimes court to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity and will ask for bail.

"Not guilty," he replied to each of the 37 charges against him involving murder, persecution and rape of civilian Serbs, Roma (gypsies) and Albanians as they were read out by judge Carmel Agius from Malta.

Haradinaj, 35, resigned last week and turned himself in to the court, in a move widely praised for setting an example of cooperation with the tribunal in The Hague (news - web sites).

Rodney Dixon, a lawyer for Haradinaj, said his client had fully cooperated with the court and he would be asking for his client's release pending a trial.

"His case is unprecedented before this tribunal, for a prime minister to resign," Dixon said. "There will be a formal motion asking for a provisional release."

According to the indictment, the former guerilla commander was "one of the most senior Kosovo Liberation Army leaders in Kosovo", the Albanian guerrilla movement opposed to the Serbian security forces headed by Slobodan Milosevic (news - web sites) during the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo.

UN prosecutors say he controlled the Dukagjin area in western Kosovo close to the Albanian border and mounted "a systematic campaign" to drive out ethnic Serbs from the area between March and September 1998.

Haradinaj is being held responsible for the crimes committed by those under his command but also for direct participation in the "beatings" of prisoners.

"He personally participated in the abduction of people who were subsequently found murdered", according to the indictment document.

The indictment said Haradinaj was present when one of his subordinates cut off the ear of a Serbian man, on May 19 1998, but did nothing to stop this or to punish the person responsible.

The hero of the Kosovo Albanian separatist struggle swapped his camouflage fatigues for a suit and tie shortly after a NATO (news - web sites) bombing campaign forced Serbian forces to withdraw from the province in 1999.

Haradinaj sees the southern Serbian province, which is now under UN and NATO administration, as the seat of a new Kosovo Albanian "nation".

Two of Haradinaj's former allies, Lahi Brahimaj and Idriz Balaj, who also turned themselves and are named in the same indictment, also pleaded not guilty when they appeared in court Monday.

They both face 35 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including persecution, deportation, cruel treatment, murders and rape.

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