The Thaçi trial between a rock and a hard place

A former Kosovo ambassador testified publicly last week before the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in the Hague. The witness mainly retracted his previous statements against former Kosovo president Hashim Thaçi. But beyond the reasons for the witness’s contradictions, it shows how Kosovo trials are caught between two duties: protecting witnesses and holding a public trial.

Thaçi trial in The Hague: the former president of Kosovo is on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Former president of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi is on trial before the Specialist Chambers in The Hague. An important witness against him has just publicly recanted his testimony. © Jerry Lampen / Pool / ANP / AFP
7 min 35Approximate reading time

Over three days of rare public hearings at the Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers last week, former ambassador of Kosovo to North Macedonia Gjergj Dedaj told the court he made “immature and exaggerated statements” during the 2014 investigations by the European Union rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, on the arbitrary detention and cruel treatment he allegedly suffered at the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

The witness told the court that his statements that he was beaten by KLA members were made in “heavy emotional state of mind” and was motivated by political revenge. While Dedaj was finishing his court testimony on November 8, member of the judging panel Guénaël Mettraux asked him whether he admitted that he gave “false and misleading” information to EULEX. The former ambassador frowned and accepted that they were “exaggerated”. They “can also be false”, he gave in after further questioning by the judge. Judge Mettraux asked Dedaj whether he was aware that giving misleading information to EULEX constituted a “criminal offence”. Dedaj answered that he was informed but had never been in court before so he “did not properly assess the situation”.

Dedaj’s testimony is part of the trial of former Kosovo president Hashim Thaçi and three co-defendants before the internationalized Specialist Chambers. The events under scrutiny date back to September 1998. According to the indictment, Thaçi, the co-defendant Rexhep Selimi and other KLA fighters “participated in and led the arrest, detention, and intimidation of 13 members of a parliamentary delegation who were on a humanitarian visit to Qirez/Cirez” (respectively in Albanian and Serbian) in Kosovo. As deputy speaker of the Assembly at the time, Dedaj led the delegation, made of MPs who embraced a peaceful resistance against Serbia. In the prosecutor’s documents it reads that the members of the delegation were then sent to a school in Baice/Banjica where they were “beaten and interrogated”. According to Dedaj’s 2014 testimony, he was threatened by Thaçi, who was allegedly the head of the political and information directorates of the KLA at the time. Then, in Thaçi's presence, a KLA fighter “stated that he was going to kill a member of the delegation”, and just before their release, Thaçi threatened one of the 13 delegates with “the words ‘even if you are free now, we could kill you in Pristina’”.

In court, Dedaj changed his statements made in 2001 when Kosovo was administered by the UN, and again in 2014 to EULEX, and said that during the detention he was not beaten but treated in a “dignified way”. He also retracted his previous statement that after the beating Thaçi interrogated him. He now rectified that they just had a conversation “between two leaders”.      

“One of the very important testimonies”

Thaçi and his three co-defendants, Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi, were high-ranking KLA figures during the 1998-1999 war, who later became senior politicians in Kosovo. Veseli and Krasniqi served, in fact, as presidents of the Kosovo Assembly, while Selimi was the head of the Vetevendosje Parliamentary Group in the Assembly. Vetevendosje – which can translate as self-determination movement – is the party currently in power under Prime Minister Albin Kurti.

At the opening of the case on April 3, 2023, the prosecution claimed that the KLA had a well structured chain of command and the accused had control over what was happening on the ground. According to the prosecutors, the four men have individual and command responsibility for crimes committed against detainees      of the KLA in Kosovo and neighbouring Albania, including over a 100 murders. The ten counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity cover the period between March 1998 and September 1999. During the defence opening statements in April, the lawyers of the accused argued that the KLA was rather a guerrilla force, which their clients had no control over. There are 143 participating victims in this case. 

The four accused have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Over the last six months, the Specialist Prosecutor's Office (SPO) has started calling its 300 witnesses, Dedaj being the 33rd. The prosecution case is expected to last until spring 2025.

The alleged crimes are in the context to the 1998 and 1999 Kosovo war, where the ethnic Albanian Kosovar of the KLA fought Serbian and former Yugoslav forces, holding power in Kosovo at the time. Serbian forces were eventually forced out of Kosovo by a 78-day NATO air campaign.

“Dedaj’s testimony had a lot of contradictions”, commented Ardit Kika, journalist at KOHA in Kosovo who is closely reporting on the trial. However, “this is one of the very important testimonies because he directly implicated the accused, Thaçi”, Kika said. He explained that “even though Dedaj changed his statements, there is one constant in his testimony - which is that he was detained and he met Thaçi during his detention”.

Contradictory statements

On November 6 and 7, the former ambassador was questioned by prosecutor Deborah Mayer. He said that 90 percent of what he previously declared was not true because he was not well when he gave past statements.

One of the key elements used by the prosecution was a video of the press conference held in Kosovo capital Pristina after the return of the delegation from Qirez/Cirez and Baice/Banjica. According to the prosecution, it is clear from the video that Dedaj’s hand is bruised and that his former party member Sokol Blakaj showed a head injury – an injury that Dedaj had reported to the EULEX investigators. But before the Chamber, Dedaj said that his injuries came from falling in the mud while he was going to the bathroom in the school yard in Baice and while climbing the mountains of Çycavica. Then on November 8, questioned by Thaçi defence lawyer Luka Misetic, he said he did not see any injuries on Blakaj’s head and that it is possible that Blakaj fell while walking on the “mountainous terrain, under rain and constant shelling [by Serbian forces]”.

When Misetic asked him whether he feared reprisal in Kosovo, Dedaj sat with his back straight and announced that “we got rid of fear in 1991 [when Kosovo first declared independence] and [said that] at any time we were ready to sacrifice our life if [former president of Serbia] Milosevic would have captured us". He continued, "we did not fear anything then and I do not fear anything today".

Dedaj explained that his statements implicating Thaçi were made out of political “revenge” and in the absence of legal advice. During the hearings he also said that without the KLA, among other parties, Kosovo would have not obtained freedom.    

Political history and rivalry

The men sitting across the courtroom, Dedaj on one side and the four accused on the other, shared a long political history after the events of 1998. During the first Thaçi government in 2007, Dedaj was appointed deputy minister of Labour and Social Welfare. He later became the Minister of Transport and Telecommunications before he was ousted from office by Thaçi, with allegations of corruption. He then went on to obtain another three ministerial positions: in 2013 as deputy minister of Culture, Youth and Sports under Thaçi’s second mandate as prime minister; in 2015 as deputy minister of Local Government Administration and in 2017 as deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, when Thaci was also in power.

Emblematic is also Dedaj’s latest appointment as ambassador of Kosovo to Macedonia in 2018. This was made at a time when Thaçi was president and, according to Kosovo laws, it is the president who has the power to appoint ambassadors by decree.

In court, Dedaj made frequent requests to go into private sessions, which were mostly rejected by presiding judge Charles Smith. And Dedaj carried on with contradictory statements. While he told the court that his testimonies have caused him to receive many threats over the years and during his appearance in The Hague, he had also announced he was going to testify before the Specialist Chambers publicly on his Facebook account.

The recurrent problem of witness intimidation

The issue of witness intimidation lies behind the very creation of this institution. The Kosovo Specialist Chambers are formally part of the Kosovo judicial system and were set up in 2015 by the Kosovo parliament under pressure from its Western allies. They are located in the Netherlands and fully staffed by internationals. The belief was that Kosovo’s judicial system was not robust enough to protect the witnesses while trying KLA cases.

In 2022, in a verdict against Chairman and vice Chairman of the KLA veteran association Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj, the Kosovo Chambers found the two men guilty of obstructing justice and intimidating witnesses. They were prosecuted for revealing protected information in a 2020 press conference, including the court’s details of certain potential witnesses, and of making derogatory remarks against potential witnesses.

In early November this year, Isni Kilaj was arrested and brought to the Hague. Kilaj is a former KLA unit commander and former head of the Malisheve/Malisevo branch of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, previously led by Thaçi. He is suspected of obstructing the administration of justice, one of the means possibly being the interference with witnesses. The Specialist Prosecutor’s Office has also raided the houses of Kilaj and other former advisers of Thaçi, as part of its investigation into suspected obstruction of justice.

The problem of witness intimidation in Kosovo is not new. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) already had to grapple with it. The trial of former KLA commander and DPK founding member Fatmir Limaj stands as an example. When acquitting him in 2005, ICTY judges wrote that “a significant number of witnesses requested protective measures at trial, and expressed concerns for their lives and those of their family. This context of fear, in particular with respect to witnesses still living in Kosovo, was very perceptible throughout the trial”. They added that “a number of victims who came to testify only did so in response to a subpoena (a sort of summoning order) issued by the Chamber”.

A “climate of witness intimidation” was also emphasised by the Head of the Special Investigative Task Force (SITF), Clint Williamson, in a July 2014 statement. The SITF was funded by the European Union to investigate into the Council of Europe’s report on the inhumane treatment of people in Kosovo. Its mandate was later inherited by the Specialist Chambers’ prosecution.

The issue of public trials

“Although witness intimidation is a major theme of this trial, it is very important that the court tries to have a legitimate face in the public”, commented Ardit Kika. “The court can do so by making the trial as public as possible.” According to Kika, the trial of Thaçi and his co-defendants is highly followed in Kosovo and having it public is key in ensuring high quality media coverage, transparency, and public scrutiny. The fact that Dedaj testimony remained mostly in open session has not been the norm at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, where many testimonies have been held behind closed doors.

The court’s spokesperson Michael Doyle admitted that this was an issue “to the extent that the judges in May asked the party to make submissions with suggestions on how to make proceedings more public”. This was followed by an order issued on November 7, with measures to “ensure the greatest amount of publicity” while protecting witnesses. One of the measures is the filing of public versions of the documents at the same time as the confidential ones. But Kika worried that it might not be enough to assert the legitimacy and credibility of the trials in Kosovo.

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