Hashim Thaçi, the former president of Kosovo and a founding member of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), has been described as “one of the key figures” in the country’s recent history. He was elected as prime minister in January 2008 and declared Kosovo’s independence a month later.
Joe Biden, as US vice-president, referred to Thaçi as “Kosovo’s George Washington” when he visited the White House in 2010. Fast forward to April 2023 and Thaçi – with three other former KLA leaders (Rexhep Selimi, Kadri Veseli and Jakup Krasniqi) – is standing trial in a special court in The Hague. He is the most senior member of the KLA to be prosecuted.
The Specialist Kosovo Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office were created in 2015 by an international agreement, ratified by the Kosovo Assembly, as a hybrid instrument of justice with international judges, prosecutors and court staff operating within the framework of Kosovo law. They have jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and other crimes under Kosovo law during the period from January 1 1998 to December 31 2000.
Thaçi and his three co-defendants are each charged with six counts of crimes against humanity (including persecution, torture and murder) and four counts of war crimes (including illegal and arbitrary arrest and detention, cruel treatment and murder).
According to the operative indictment against the four men, they were part of a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) and “shared the common purpose to gain and exercise control over all of Kosovo by means including unlawfully intimidating, mistreating, committing violence against, and removing those deemed to be opponents”.
These “opponents” allegedly included ethnic minorities (Serbs, Roma and others), as well as ethnic Albanians who did not support the KLA. The operative indictment also refers to the defendants’ superior responsibility, by virtue of their senior leadership positions within the KLA, for crimes committed by persons under their control and members of the JCE.
Organ trafficking allegations
Thaçi has pleaded not guilty and stated that he expects to be acquitted of all charges. His fellow defendants have also denied any guilt in what Krasniqi said was “a joint liberation enterprise and state-forming enterprise”. Selimi told the court that he “fought against the Serbian occupier who only brought evil to my country – murder, displacement, humiliation and genocide”. Veseli has also denied the charges.
One of the accusations against Thaçi and his co-defendants is that they were involved in the trafficking of human organs. But the indictment against Thaçi and his co-defendants does not include any reference to this.
The organ trafficking claims were first made in 2008 and investigated by Dick Marty, a Swiss politician and former prosecutor. Marty’s report for the Council of Europe, published in January 2011, challenged “the much-touted image of the KLA as a guerrilla army that fought valiantly to defend the right of its people to inhabit the territory of Kosovo”.
It also found evidence of a “subset of captives” who were “taken into central Albania to be murdered immediately before having their kidneys removed in a makeshift operating clinic”.
Reactions to the trial
There is predictably strong opposition to the trial among Kosovo Albanians. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Priština, holding placards with the images of the men and slogans such as “Freedom has a name” and “Don’t equate victims with criminals”. Demonstrators have also gathered in front of the courtroom in The Hague.
According to a senior legal advisor at the Kosovo Law Institute, it is important that the trial is understood as a case “against a few individuals of the former KLA and not a trial against the KLA or the values that the people of Kosovo represent”. Many Kosovo Albanians, however, are unlikely to make this distinction, instead viewing the trial as an indictment of the entire Kosovo Albanian war effort.
Similar protests erupted in Croatia in 2011 against the international trial and conviction (overturned on appeal in 2012) of the former Croatian war generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) (created by the UN security council in 1993).
The fact that Thaçi and his co-accused enjoy huge support and popularity could deter some witnesses from giving evidence against them. In his opening statement at the trial, acting specialist prosecutor Alex Whiting pointed out that “most of the victims of the accused were fellow Kosovar Albanians”.
Previous experience suggests it might be hard to get witnesses to come forward. The 2008 ICTY trial judgement against three other former members of the KLA (Ramush Haradinaj, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj) reported “significant difficulties in securing the testimony of a large number of witnesses”. It added that “many witnesses cited fear as a prominent reason for not wishing to appear before the Trial Chamber to give evidence”.
The Council of Europe report by Dick Marty referred to the relevance of Kosovo Albanian society being “still very much clan-orientated”. It also emphasised the “fear, often to the point of genuine terror, which we observed in some of our informants as soon as the subject of our inquiry was broached”.
The trial of Thaçi and his co-defendants is expected to last for up to six years. More than 20 years after the alleged crimes were committed, there is the possibility, at least for some of the KLA’s victims, of some sort of resolution – however tardy, imperfect and incomplete.
But even if the accused are ultimately found guilty, it is safe to say that any conviction will have little impact on how these men are widely viewed in Kosovo and neighbouring Albania.
Evidence given at the trial may well provide a fuller picture of these historic events, but it will not dislodge existing narratives. Competing interpretations of the past are – and will remain – one of the long-term legacies of the war in Kosovo.