A man walks past a huge billboard depicting former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci in Pristina, Kosovo, on March 31, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)
THE HAGUE – Former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci stands trial at a special court in The Hague on Monday for alleged war crimes during the 1998-99 insurgency that eventually brought independence from Serbia and made him a hero among compatriots.
Thaci was indicted in 2020 by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers on 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including persecution, murder, torture and forced disappearance of people, including after fighting ended.
Thaci and three co-defendants, all former close associates in the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and later in peacetime politics, have pleaded not guilty to all 10 counts.
More than 13,000 people, the majority of them members of Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, are believed to have died during the insurgency, when it was still a province of Serbia under then-strongman president Slobodan Milosevic.
The trial, conducted by international judges and prosecutors, will begin with opening statements by the prosecution followed by defense lawyers and a representative of Kosovo's war Victims Council over the ensuing three days.
More than 13,000 people, the majority of them members of Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, are believed to have died during the 1998-99 insurgency, when it was still a province of Serbia under then-strongman president Slobodan Milosevic
Thaci, 54, resigned as president shortly after his indictment and was transferred to detention in The Hague.
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The four defendants are charged with participating in a "joint criminal enterprise … that carried out widespread or systematic attacks" on minority Serb civilians in Kosovo as well as Kosovo Albanian opponents of the KLA.
The trial is likely to be lengthy as prosecutors said in procedural conferences that they would need two years to present all its evidence.
Several thousand KLA veterans gathered on Sunday in Pristina to express support for Thaci and his three close associates. They chanted 'Freedom' and carried national flags of Kosovo and Albania, as well as flags with the KLA symbol.
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers, seated in the Netherlands and staffed by international judges and lawyers, was set up in 2015 to handle cases under Kosovo law against ex-KLA guerrillas.
Many Kosovars believe that the tribunal is biased against the KLA and interested in denigrating its record in paving the way to liberation of the ethnic-Albanian majority region from brutal Serbian rule.
"This trial is of four people accused of committing terrible crimes during (as well as) after the war, when the fighting had stopped, including against people from various ethnic groups,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Friday.
"It offers a chance after so many years for the victims to learn what happened and highlights the pervasive impunity that still hangs over the Kosovo conflict."
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The court was created separately from the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was also located in The Hague where it tried and convicted mainly Serbian officials for war crimes in the Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts.
Milosevic went on trial before the ICTY but he died in 2006 before a verdict was reached.