Kosovo’s majority Albanian population welcomes result of Hague tribunal’s first case against former guerrillas.
By Janet Anderson in The Hague (TU No 432, 2-Dec-05)
The streets of Pristina erupted with flags, horns and celebratory gunfire on December 1 as news spread that the Hague tribunal had acquitted two of the first three members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, ever to face trial there for war crimes.
Judges in The Hague sentenced one former foot soldier, Haradin Bala, to 13 years in prison for his role in a KLA prison camp in the village of Lapusnik where Serbs and suspected Albanian collaborators were tortured and murdered in 1998.
But they declared themselves unconvinced that former commanders Fatmir Limaj and Isak Musliu had played any role at the facility. Limaj, who held a senior role in the guerrilla army which helped drive Belgrade security forces out of Kosovo, gained a high profile as a politician in the wake of the conflict.
While the verdict has met with a predictably downbeat response in Serbia, reactions amongst Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanian population have been jubilant. Many feel that the court ruling, despite confirming that horrific individual crimes were committed, vindicates the KLA as an organisation.
The judgement comes at a particularly welcome time for Albanians in Kosovo, with talks set to begin on the future political status of the region. Most hope that the process will result in independence from Belgrade.
Observers in Pristina described a collective sense of relief as the judgement hearing in the case was broadcast live on television screens in homes and bars across Kosovo.
The resulting celebrations were a far cry from the dire predictions published in local newspapers of what might happen if the three were found guilty. Just two days before the judgement was issued, an estimated 20,000 people filed through the streets of Pristina protesting the innocence of the three men.
When Limaj went to The Hague in 2003, Kosovo’s then prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, declared that the trial would give the accused “a chance to prove his innocence and the purity of the war that was led by the KLA”.
Some observers now see particular significance in the judges’ decision to dismiss charges of crimes against humanity against the three accused. They did so on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence that the atrocities at the Lapusnik camp were committed as “part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population”.
“It’s been understood here as a cleansing of the resistance,” said Petrit Selimi, the managing director of Pristina’s new Daily Express newspaper. The verdict, he explained, has been “seen as recognition that there were [individual] crimes, not a campaign”.
Kosovo parliamentarian Enver Hoxhaj told IWPR that the judgement is “a good message while Kosovo’s final status talks are going on”, explaining that it has given the local population a feeling that they are supported by the international community.
With Kosovo’s president Ibrahim Rugova in bad health and former prime minister Ramus Haradinaj currently awaiting a Hague war crimes trial, there have been concerns that Albanians will lack a strong figurehead for the talks on Kosovo’s future.
Analysts in Kosovo told IWPR that Limaj is viewed by some as having the potential to fill the vacuum. Selimi explained that Limaj is now viewed as a “sympathetic figure” because of the dignity with which he went to The Hague.
Hoxhaj, who is a senior member of Limaj’s Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, told IWPR that he thought Limaj would step back into the “crucial” role he played in the party before being indicted. “We missed him,” he added.
The judgement has also served to support the view that Hague tribunal’s first case involving former KLA fighters was in fact only launched as part of an effort to show the court’s impartiality with regard to the various parties involved in the Balkans conflicts of the Nineties.
A series of senior Serbian generals and politicians, including former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, have been indicted for their role in alleged ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999.
There has also been speculation about what consequences the outcome might have on the joint trial of Haradinaj and two others said to have been his subordinates in the KLA. They are charged with involvement in the abduction and murder of Serbs, Roma and suspected Albanian collaborators.
Edgar Chen, a long-time observer of proceedings at the Hague tribunal for the Coalition for International Justice, told IWPR, however, that it is important to remember that these are two distinct cases. “Haradinaj is charged under a different set of alleged facts,” he said. “Judges will have to consider Haradinaj's case on the evidence that [prosecutors] and his defence presents.”
The judges hearing the case against Limaj, Musliu and Bala in The Hague appeared keen to emphasise that the acquittal of two of the accused did not mean that crimes had not taken place.
They underlined that civilians had been held in horrific conditions at the KLA camp in Lapusnik, with “gross overcrowding” and some chained to the wall; KLA soldiers, often wearing hoods to hide their faces, beat inmates into unconsciousness; detainees, including some who had been shot, were denied medical treatment despite the existence of a clinic in the village where KLA personnel were treated.
Apart from three prisoners who were murdered at the camp itself, Bala was also found to have taken part in the massacre of nine prisoners in nearby mountains.
But the judges said they were not satisfied that Limaj and Musliu held positions in the KLA which would have made them responsible for the camp.
While there was a “strong possibility” that Limaj had been personally present at the facility, they said, there was not enough evidence to convict of personal involvement crimes there. As for Musliu, the judges ruled that there was in fact “little evidence to identify... [him] as having any kind of involvement in the prison camp”.
Meanwhile, reactions in Belgrade to the verdict have been unsurprisingly gloomy. Rasim Ljajic, president of Serbia’s National Council for Cooperation with the Hague tribunal, told the Beta news agency that the result would bolster the positions of those who are hostile to the United Nations court.
Janet Anderson is IWPR’s programme manager in The Hague.