Politico: Kosovo politicians in ‘panic attack’ over war crimes court

US and EU sound alarm over moves to block prosecution of ex-guerrillas.

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Former Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj (not in picture) is welcomed by thousands of Kosovar Albanians on his arrival in Pristina, Kosovo, 27 April 2017. Former Prime Minister of the Republic of Kosovo has been released as French court has refused to extradite him to Serbia’s authorities based on a 2004 international arrest warrant issued by Serbia. EPA/PETRIT PRENAJ

Top Kosovo politicians are getting edgy as a special court prepares to issue indictments for war crimes.

Out of the blue, a group of MPs tried late last month to suspend a law regulating the new court. And Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi, who was instrumental in getting parliament to approve the court in 2014 under heavy international pressure, now says he would sign such legislation.

The surprise U-turns alarmed Western powers. The U.S. State Department expressed “deep concern” and the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo said Washington would view a repeal of the law as “a stab in the back.” The head of the EU’s office in Kosovo called the attempt “appalling” and “extremely damaging for Kosovo.”

Thaçi, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and other political leaders were senior members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrilla group, which fought Serb repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority in one of a series of wars that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s. The new court is tasked with prosecuting KLA figures behind a campaign of violence and intimidation against Serbs, other ethnic groups and political opponents during and after the 1998-1999 war.

The surge in political opposition to the court also raised the prospect of unrest when indictments are finally issued. Daut Haradinaj, a brother of the prime minister who is also an MP and former KLA commander, said there “there is no KLA fighter that will not join in” to prevent arrests.

The effort to repeal the law on the special court was spearheaded by Nait Hasani, an MP from the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which was founded by Thaçi and other ex-KLA leaders.

“The special court has been and will be unacceptable to Kosovo,” Hasani said. “It is a political court and wants to punish only Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers for alleged war crimes.”

Hasani was top of a list of 43 MPs who demanded a parliamentary session to suspend the law. Their request was not approved by the parliament’s presidency group but the measure may get another chance. The main opposition party, the Self-Determination Movement, said this week it would vote to get rid of the court.

Undermining the court would set back attempts to improve volatile relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which both aspire to EU membership in the long term. Belgrade does not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, like Russia and five EU countries. Even considering reneging on the court damages Kosovo’s attempts to establish itself as a member of the international community, analysts say.

A Kosovo Albanian man dressed in a military uniform stands during a protest staged by Kosovo war veterans’ associations in support of ex-premier and wartime guerrilla commander Ramush Haradinaj, who is awaiting a French court’s decision on Serbia’s request for his extradition, on January 21, 2017 in Pristina.
Belgrade accuses Haradinaj of war crimes against civilians in the late 1990s, when he led ethnic Albanian insurgents fighting Serbian forces for Kosovo’s independence. Haradinaj has already been twice tried and acquitted at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

The move reflected a “panic attack” by politicians worried they could be targeted in indictments expected in the coming months, said Besa Luzha, a political analyst based in Kosovo’s capital Pristina.

“You look completely immature as a state if you try to undermine an international obligation, like this court was,” Luzha said. She said there were plenty of reasons to oppose the court — which many Kosovo Albanians see as a form of selective justice — but reneging on an international commitment sent a signal that Kosovo is “a state that is not credible.”

Krenar Gashi, a political scientist at Ghent University, said the move was a clear example of politicians putting their personal interests ahead of those of the country.

“They just want to save their asses,” he said.

Witness intimidation

The new court, officially called the Specialist Chambers, has no clear legal precedent in the Balkans or elsewhere. Unlike the tribunal that tried the most serious crimes in the Yugoslav wars, it is not officially an international body. It will function under Kosovo law. But it is based in The Hague, staffed by international judges and prosecutors and bankrolled by the EU. Having the court based outside of Kosovo is meant to reduce the risk of witness intimidation, which has been a major problem in previous attempts to prosecute ex-KLA members.

As NATO forces moved into Kosovo following the end of the war, more than 160,000 Serbs fled, many forced from their homes in cities such as Pristina, Prizren, Gjakova and elsewhere. Children, elderly Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities were among victims whose homes were looted. In one of the biggest massacres, 14 Serb farmers near the village of Gracko were killed at close range on July 23, 1999.

Kosovo’s foreign minister and former premier Hashim Thaci speaks during an interview with AFP in Pristina on February 3, 2016.  ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Today in Kosovo, political support for the court comes from the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), one of the country’s three biggest parties. Tensions linger between the LDK and the PDK, founded by Thaçi and other senior ex-guerrillas, over unsolved murders of LDK members after the war, which the party hopes will be prosecuted by the new court.

Since her father’s murder in November 2000, Beriane Mustafa has waited for three successive judicial systems to find his killer and hold him accountable. Her father, Xhemajl, a prominent journalist and an adviser to LDK leader Ibrahim Rugova, was gunned down at home. As she waited in vain for the post-war courts, administered first by the United Nations, then by a European Union mission, and finally by her fellow Kosovars, the bloodstains left on the walls by the two unknown assassins faded along with her hopes that she would see justice.

Though she is skeptical, Mustafa sees this new court as a last chance to get justice and establish Kosovo as a country where the rule of law prevails.

“If we want a fully functional state with rule of law, we have to deal with the past, to bring justice to all perpetrators of war crimes,” she said. “We have blood in the roots of our state, so you cannot talk about rule of law and everyone being equal in front of justice if you don’t deal with these murders.”

Prosecution speculation

For years, speculation has swirled in Pristina over which of Kosovo’s top politicians could be targeted by the special court.

Thaçi was the political leader of the KLA, and was described as the leader of an organized crime ring in the 2010 Council of Europe report that paved the way for the court to be set up. Prime Minister Haradinaj was a KLA commander in western Kosovo, while the parliament’s speaker, Kadri Veseli, was the commander of the force’s intelligence service. All of them deny all allegations of criminality. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia twice acquitted Haradinaj of war crimes.

Kosovo’s former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj (C) sits in the side the Court in Colmar, eastern France, on April 27, 2017, as he waits to hear the result of his extradition hearing.
A French court on Thursday rejected a request by Serbia to extradite former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, who Belgrade accuses of committing war crimes in June 1999. Haradinaj, 48, was arrested by French police on January 4 when he flew into the Franco-Swiss airport of Basel-Mulhouse but he is free to return home following Thursday’s decision by the court in Colmar, eastern France.  SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images

Thaçi’s statement that he would not block a law freezing the legislation on the court was a clear signal that he wanted MPs to try again, said Albert Krasniqi, an analyst at the Kosovo Democratic Institute think tank.

He said such a revocation would paralyze rather than disband the court because Kosovo amended its constitution in 2015 to establish it. Undoing those changes would need a two-thirds majority, as well as approval from two-thirds of MPs representing minorities, including Serbs.

Krasniqi said the court might actually gain public support if people saw politicians they regarded as corrupt were opposed to it. The maneuvers around the court meant 2018 would be a make-or-break year for Kosovo, he said.

“With these immature actions of our leaders, whether or not we are going to survive as a state is in question. We risk being isolated from members of the international community who helped us to declare independence,” Krasniqi said.

“These are quite dangerous games.”

 

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