By Michael Farquhar in The Hague (TU No 404, 29-Apr-05)
Prosecutors this week set out their case against a man who they say tried to get a key witness to withdraw his testimony against three former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, members currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes.
Kosovo Albanian Beqa Beqaj is charged with contempt of the tribunal, attempted contempt of the tribunal and incitement to contempt of the tribunal.
If found guilty, he could face up to seven years in prison and a fine of 100,000 euro, around 129,000 US dollars.
Given a chance to address the court at the start of the case on April 25, Beqaj – a heavy-set middle-aged man, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and cardigan – continued to deny the charges.
"My imprisonment is unjust," he insisted, adding later, "I was never anyone's thug."
Prosecutors say Beqaj contacted the witness in question - known only as B-1 - on behalf of his relative Isak Musliu and another Hague indictee, Fatmir Limaj, and offered him land to pull out of the proceedings against them.
Beqaj is also alleged to have interfered with a second potential witness in the case, known by the pseudonym B-2.
“This case is primarily a case of witness interference and bribery, as opposed to threats and intimidation,” prosecutor David Akerson explained in his opening statement.
Musliu and Limaj are accused – along with a third man, Haradin Bala – of running a KLA prison camp in the village of Lapusnik in 1998 where Serbs and Albanians suspected of collaboration were beaten and murdered.
B-1, the main victim of Beqaj’s alleged interference, has already given “critical” evidence in the Lapusnik trial about the roles played by all three accused, according to Akerson.
He also told judges in that trial how he survived a massacre of a group of prisoners when the Lapusnik prison was closed down in the summer of 1998, and he identified Bala as one of those who carried out the killing.
Akerson said B-1 has been living outside Kosovo under protection since late 2003, having survived two attempts on his life and a series of threats to himself and his family.
Beqaj knew the witness, he said, having been taken in by his father when he was orphaned as a young child. As a result, Beqaj was apparently able to get in touch through a family member to pass on messages from Musliu, with whom he had spoken on the telephone from the UN detention unit in The Hague.
After Hague investigators found out about this contact, Akerson said, they recorded a telephone conversation in which Beqaj urged B-1 to return to Kosovo to discuss withdrawing his testimony.
“Come meet with Limaj’s brother and say you had nothing to do with Limaj or Musliu,” Beqaj was apparently heard saying. “...Fix something up. Give us some help.”
Akerson said clips from this phone call would be played in court, along with other recorded phone calls in which Beqaj used “coded language” to discuss witnesses. The latter clips, Akerson explained, were recorded after prosecutors obtained permission to tap Beqaj’s phone.
In one call, Beqaj apparently seemed to acknowledge that his intervention in the matter amounted to coercion, telling the witness, “We are not pressuring you as to [the third accused] Bala.”
The sound in the public gallery was switched off when these recordings were played to avoid revealing the witnesses’ identity.
The same went for most of the testimony of B-1, when he gave evidence later in the week. The portion of his testimony heard in public was mostly limited to his identification of Beqaj, and a discussion of his life as a protected witness.
“I couldn’t leave my apartment at all without informing the protection forces,” B-1 told judges. “...Just for a simple thing like having a coffee in a restaurant, I was escorted by three or four persons.”
But testimony by a second man, described as a “potential witness” in the Limaj trial, provided greater insight into the case.
The 68-year-old – referred to as B-2 – recounted an incident during which he was accosted by Beqaj’s son, Bashkim Beqaj, outside a kebab restaurant in the town of Shtime/Stimlje last summer.
Bashkim apparently threatened him, saying, “You were the one who brought my uncle [Musliu] to The Hague.” The witness reported that the young man, who seemed to want to do him harm, had to be led away from the scene.
When he later visited the accused to discuss his son’s behaviour, the witness said that Beqaj “received him really well”, served him coffee and tea and clearly “felt really bad about what had happened”.
At that meeting, Beqaj apparently explained that Musliu had called him six times from The Hague and had told him to have a word with B-2. But he was reluctant to act on the request and apparently reassured the old man, “I feel more sorry about you than for Isak. I would never give you up for Isak.”
“Beqa Beqaj is a good person... it’s hard to find someone like him,” B-2 pleaded with judges after he finished giving his testimony. “...I would really wish for him to be set free and for us to go back home together.”
Later in the week, the court heard from Hague investigator Jonathan Sutch, who interviewed Beqaj twice after the allegations of witness interference came to light.
Prosecutors say during those interviews – recordings of which were entered into evidence – Beqaj at first admitted having contact with a witness, then denied knowing B-1 or B-2 or any other witness in the Lapusnik trial, and then later admitted having spoken to B-1 and having talked with Musliu about B-1.
Sutch confirmed that Beqaj was evasive. “The more information was given, the more the accused would start to make certain admissions,” he said.
He also confirmed that Limaj and Musliu would not necessarily find it difficult to manipulate events in Kosovo, despite the fact they are locked up in The Hague.
“The influence he has in Kosovo... there is an element of reputation that comes into play,” he said of Musliu. “And by reputation, there is no reason to think that his wishes wouldn’t be carried out.”
Beqaj’s defence counsel, Tjarda Eduard van der Spoel, refrained from explicitly challenging any of the basic facts of the prosecution case in his opening statement, and declined to call any witnesses for the defence.
But he argued that to secure a conviction, prosecutors would need to show that his client was aware that the individuals in question were potential witnesses and was also aware of the tribunal’s rules regarding contempt of court if and when he broke those rules.
More proof would be needed to convict an “ignorant individual” like Beqaj, he said, in comparison with the kind of evidence necessary in contempt proceedings against those who are familiar with tribunal practice.
The trial will reconvene on May 2 for judges to hear closing statements from prosecutors and defence counsel.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.