Sunday October 30, 2005
The United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague has created a storm of controversy by letting Kosovo's former Prime Minister - charged with torture, murder and ethnic cleansing - resume political life in Kosovo.
Ramush Haradinaj, who had already been allowed to return to the province pending trial, was told two weeks ago that he could take up politics again. Days later, that move was halted temporarily by chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte but, according to diplomatic sources, the court is now expected to rule on the issue 'within days'.
In a strongly worded submission, the prosecution told the judges, who are bitterly divided on the issue, that 'constantly seeing the accused in the media' would 'have a chilling effect on victims and witnesses' and have 'the very real likelihood' of producing a 'very intimidating effect' on them. They would 'gain the impression that power still resides in the hands of the accused'.
The indictment of Haradinaj, 37, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, along with that of two subordinates, was made public last March. It accused them of 37 counts of abduction, murder, torture and ethnic cleansing of Serbs, Roma and fellow Albanians in 1998. His supporters say he has done nothing wrong and, with the presumption of innocence, should be free to go about his business until trial.
The row follows the decision last Monday by the UN Security Council to approve the start of talks on the future of the disputed province. Kosovo's Albanians want independence, in the face of Serbian opposition. Since the end of the fighting in 1999, Kosovo has been under the jurisdiction of the UN.
The move to lift the ban on politics for Haradinaj has been spearheaded by the UN mission in Kosovo and supported by diplomats there. They believe that, as tensions rise in the run-up to talks, Haradinaj could play a crucial role. One diplomat told The Observer that Haradinaj could 'play a useful role in terms of telling hardliners he knows to stay calm'. Most indictments for Kosovo have been aimed at Serbs, including former President Slobodan Milosevic, but prosecutors say all sides committed crimes during the war.
The temporarily frozen ruling has already harmed the tribunal's attempts to establish a reputation for impartiality. Serb leaders have said it has just confirmed their long-held belief that the court is biased against them. Dusan Batakovic, a senior adviser on Kosovo to Serbia's President Boris Tadic, said: 'We see this as appalling. This unbalanced approach to indictees of different sides is sending a very wrong message to both Serbs and Albanians.'
Del Ponte has argued that the lifting of restrictions on Haradinaj would create 'a terrible perception' of unfairness, since similar privileges have not been granted to any other indictees. The prosecution asked the court what it would say if a similar request was made on behalf of Vojislav Seselj, the Serbian politician who has been indicted for crimes against humanity and murder.
Earlier this year Rasim Delic, the former head of the Bosnian Army, was refused permission by the court to go on a tour of Bosnia promoting a book while awaiting trial.
At the time his indictment was made public last March, Haradinaj was Prime Minister of Kosovo and he was widely acclaimed as having achieved a huge amount in the 100 days he was in office.
On 6 June, Haradinaj was released pending trial. The terms of his conditional release sanctioned only limited work within his own party. Haradinaj's defence team then asked for these terms to be relaxed, and in this they were supported by the UN mission in Kosovo. On 14 October, the tribunal agreed to this request. On 19 October, Del Ponte succeeded in getting this move temporarily halted.
Agron Bajram, editor of the daily paper Koha Ditore, said that he, like most Kosovo Albanians, would be 'delighted' if Haradinaj could return to politics, because he had been a 'much needed' figure while in power and could play a major role in unifying the Albanian side during the talks on Kosovo's future.
What is clear is that since his release the UN and diplomats in Kosovo have courted Haradinaj in a way unprecedented for a man indicted for murder and ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia. On 26 September, for example, a huge party was held at Pristina's Hotel Grand to celebrate the wedding of Haradinaj's brother. Among the guests were Larry Rossin, the deputy head of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), plus other senior officials and diplomats.