Kosovo’s former President pleaded not guilty on April 3 to charges including murder, torture and persecution as he went on trial with three other former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), while a prosecutor insisted that “nobody is above the law.”
Hashim Thaci resigned from office in 2020 to defend himself against the charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during his country’s 1998-99 war for independence from Serbia.
“I am fully not guilty,” Mr. Thaci told judges at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers as the trial opened. The other three defendants also repeated not guilty pleas made at earlier pretrial hearings.
The case has stirred an outpouring of support from across the political spectrum in Kosovo. On Sunday, thousands of people took to the streets to show their support for the defendants. Many Kosovars consider the Netherlands-based court an injustice and view it as an attempt to rewrite the history of their struggle for independence.
Prosecutor Alex Whiting said the KLA, a guerrilla force which battled against the powerful Serbian military, had “a very clear and explicit policy of targeting collaborators and perceived traitors including political opponents.”
Mr. Whiting said prosecutors would prove that the KLA and was responsible for hundreds of murders and illegal detentions across Kosovo and northern Albania in 1998 and 1999 and that the four accused are responsible for those crimes as military leaders of the KLA general staff.
“Most of the victims of the accused were fellow Kosovar Albanians. In their zeal to target and eliminate those persons they deemed to be opponents. The accused endorsed and implemented a policy that often victimised their own,” Mr. Whiting said, adding that the trial was about key defending principles.
“This case is about defending the rule of law during wartime, which is when the rule of law is most threatened,” he said. “Nobody is above the law, even during wartime,” he added. As the trial opened, hundreds of supporters of Mr. Thaci and the other defendants gathered near The Hague’s central railway station. Many waved flags and banners, including one that read: “Don’t equal victims with the criminals!”
Lawyers for Mr. Thaci and the other defendants are scheduled to deliver their opening statements on April 4. The first witnesses are expected to testify next week.
Defence lawyers are expected to argue that the KLA was a loosely organised guerilla force and that the defendants had little control over local fighters and cannot be held responsible for the actions of others. In their opening statement, prosecutors sought to refute that claim.
“Each of the four accused wielded power, authority and influence, which enabled them to implement the common criminal purpose charged and exercise effective control,” prosecution lawyer Matt Halling told judges.
The trial is taking place at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which is based in the Netherlands but is part of Kosovo’s legal system.
Mr. Thaci is standing trial along with Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi for offenses allegedly committed across Kosovo and northern Albania from 1998 to September 1999, during and after the war.
Most of the 13,000 people who died in the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo were ethnic Albanians. A 78-day campaign of NATO air strikes against Serbian forces ended the fighting. About one million ethnic Albanian Kosovars were driven out from their homes.
The court in The Hague and a linked prosecutor’s office were created after a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, a human rights body, that included allegations that KLA fighters trafficked human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and fellow ethnic Albanians. The organ harvesting allegations weren’t included in the indictment against Mr. Thaci.
In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, a move that Belgrade refuses to recognise. The United States and most of the West recognise the declaration, but Serbia — supported by allies Russia and China — does not.
Kosovo-Serbia relations remain tense despite stepped-up efforts from Washington and the European Union, with a recent Western plan envisaging normalisation of their relations.