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Ex-Kosovo leader Thaci tells war crimes court he will be exonerated

2023-04-04T11:49:52Z

Kosovo’s former president Hashim Thaci expressed sorrow on Tuesday for all victims of the 1998-99 insurgency against Serbian rule but told judges on the second day of his war crimes trial that he expects to be exonerated.

Thaci and three co-defendants face 10 charges of persecution, murder, torture and forced disappearance of people during and shortly after the guerrilla uprising that eventually brought Kosovo independence from Serbia and made him a hero among many compatriots at home and abroad.

“I feel sorrow and pain for all the victims of this terrible war (regardless of) their ethnicity, religion or political affiliation,” he said in a short statement in court, translated from Albanian.

Standing in the dock in a dark suit and red tie, the 54-year-old Thaci repeated that he was “innocent of all these allegations” and that Kosovo was “on the right side of history”.

In their opening statement earlier on Tuesday, defence lawyers said Thaci did not control the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), in which he was a senior commander, at the time of the war crimes charges against him.

They blamed any crimes committed on rogue local KLA commanders. “Hashim Thaci did not control the KLA, the zone commanders did,” American lawyer Gregory Kehoe told judges.

On Monday prosecutors said Thaci and the other three principal leaders of the KLA waged a violent campaign targeting political opponents, as well as minority ethnic Serbs and Roma to gain full control.

Hundreds of their alleged victims were imprisoned across Kosovo in terrible conditions and 102 were killed, according to the indictment. Most victims were members of Kosovo’s 90% ethnic Albanian majority, prosecutors said.

The KLA started as a guerilla organisation but in peacetime its leaders largely took over politics in the small Balkan country. All four men on trial deny the charges against them.

More than 13,000 people, the majority of them Kosovo Albanians, are believed to have died during the insurgency, when Kosovo was still a province of Serbia under then-strongman nationalist president Slobodan Milosevic.

Thaci resigned as Kosovo president shortly after his indictment in November 2020 and has spent the last two years in detention in The Hague.

During his time as a KLA leader and prominent politician, Thaci worked closely with many Western leaders. Joe Biden, when he was U.S. vice president, called him “the George Washington of Kosovo”.

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 the tribunal is biased against the KLA and fear the court could discredit its record in paving the way to liberation of Kosovo from repressive Serbian rule.

The court was created separately from the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), also held in the Hague, which 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.

Related Galleries:

Former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci attends his war crimes trial in The Hague, Netherlands April 3, 2023. Koen van Weel/Pool via REUTERS

Former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) officers Jakup Krasniqi and Kadri Veseli attend the war crimes trial in The Hague, Netherlands April 3, 2023. Koen van Weel/Pool via REUTERS

Supporters of former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci protest on the first day of his war crimes trial, in The Hague, Netherlands, April 3, 2023. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

Supporters of former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci protest on the first day of his war crimes trial, in The Hague, Netherlands, April 3, 2023. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
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