Kosovo: tension in the prison over witness protection

Prosecutors in the war crimes trial against former Kosovo president Hashim Thaçi accused him and two of his co-defendants of attempting to “obstruct the proceedings” by revealing the identities of protected witnesses and trying to interfere with their testimony. On November 17 they asked the Kosovo Specialist Chambers for stricter detention measures for the three men. Once again this court is faced with the main challenge in running Kosovo trials: witness protection.

At the Kosovo Tribunal (based in The Hague in the Netherlands), Hashim Thaçi, Kadri Veseli and Rexhep Selimi are on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Hashim Thaçi (left), Kadri Veseli (center) and Rexhep Selimi (right), on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity, "are actively engaged in unlawful conduct that is detrimental to the safety, security and well-being of witnesses," according to the prosecutor of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers. © Koen van Weel & Eva Plevier / AFP
4 min 18Approximate reading time

Hashim Thaçi, Kadri Veseli and Rexhep Selimi have allegedly “used their non-privileged visits [privileged visits are those between a defendant and their defence lawyer] to unlawfully disseminate protected witness information, identify witnesses, and in Thaçi’s case, repeatedly instructed visitors to seek to manipulate witness testimony,” wrote the Office of the prosecutor of the Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers on November 17. “Multiple protected witnesses in this case have reported being approached by persons attempting to prevent or influence their testimony,” said the prosecutor. “In a number of instances, these approaches were indicated as having been directed by one or more of the Three Accused and/or persons who had visited them in The Hague.”

Former president of Kosovo Thaçi and his two co-defendants – who were also high-ranking Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) figures during the 1998-1999 Kosovo war to gain independence from Serbia – are currently on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. With the authorisation of the judges, the prosecutors have taped some of the visits to the three accused. Some of the evidence collected is contained in a redacted form of their submission to the judges. One instance shows a witness being approached in March 2023 and told that Thaçi and Veseli had “directly instructed” one of their visitors to the prison in the Hague to arrange for someone to deliver the message that one of the witnesses, whose name is protected, “should withdraw” or weaken its testimony. In another instance a witness was also approached and asked to soften their evidence “for the good of Kosovo”. Another witness reports “several attempts to interfere with his testimony by multiple individuals.”

The prosecutors’ submission stresses that “it was a regular occurrence for unscheduled detainees to enter and take part in visits for which they were not authorised to be present,” showing how in multiple occasions Veseli “dropped into the scheduled visits of other detainees.” These includes visits to Thaçi and Selimi in July this year, three months into the trial proceedings.

Instructing witnesses how they should testify

Recordings used by the prosecutors are said to further show the defendants revealing “protected witnesses’ identities and confidential details.” Additional evidence reveals Thaçi “showing the visitors, and possibly handing over a copy of, one or more witness statements, and providing instructions to be conveyed to the witness,” wrote the prosecutor. In the transcript of the recording Thaçi flicks through the pages of the witness statement copy and says to the visitor “I must orientate you a little.”

It appears that the former Kosovo president met with at least two witnesses before or after their testimony. According to the prosecutor, evidence shows that Thaçi provided instructions on “how witnesses should testify and directed his visitors to approach witnesses on his behalf.” In a transcript of a recorded conversation with visitors Thaçi said “The boss was Adem Demaçi, he should state it clearly,” and then “Tell him ‘You are coming here, leave this place a hero. Don’t leave shameful’.” Demaçi was a human rights defender who embodied Kosovo’s national resistance and is often remembered as the Nelson Mandela of Kosovo. For a short time he was also the leading politician of the KLA, from which he resigned in 1999. He died in 2018.

“The three Accused are actively engaged in unlawful conduct that is detrimental to the safety, security and well-being of witnesses,” concluded the prosecutors. In response to that, the Specialist Prosecutor Kimberly West, who signed the filing, asked the trial panel to forbid all non-privileged in person visits and restrict communications to a “defined set of immediate family and consular officials.” All correspondence and import items should be reviewed and all video and audio communications to the outside should be actively monitored by an Albanian speaker, asked the prosecutor. Exemptions are made for privileged contacts, which means communications and visits by lawyers, but restricted to counsel and co-counsel of the accused only. A “segregation of the three accused from all other current detainees” is also requested. Such measures are deemed by the Prosecutor's Office “necessary and proportionate” to “preserve the integrity of the proceedings”. There is “concrete risk of unlawful attempts to interfere with witnesses and obstruct their testimony,” they wrote.

A long history of witness intimidation

The judges swiftly agreed that this risk seems real and granted temporary measures requested by the prosecution. All communications to the outside were suspended and the three men were segregated until the judges’ final decision, following submissions by the defence and the registry’s department in charge of detentions. By November 30, no redacted version of the defense response was available. The concern is that Thaçi, Veseli and Selimi could convey messages via other detainees, who served as their subordinates in the KLA.

The three men have been in custody since November 2020. The trial opened last April. The prosecution is expected to present their case until the spring of 2025. The Kosovo Specialist Chambers, staffed by international judges and lawyers, was set up in 2015 to handle cases against ex-KLA guerrillas. The Chambers were specifically set outside of Kosovo because of worries over witness protection, as the former KLA leaders are seen by many as heroes in the Balkan country.

Incidents related to witness protection are not a first in the history of the Kosovo Chambers and many measures are already in place to try and protect witnesses, like anonymity during the proceedings and the many closed sessions. In 2022, the chairman and vice chairman of the KLA veteran association Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj, were found guilty of obstructing justice and intimidating witnesses. Earlier this month the prosecutors arrested and brought to the Hague Isni Kilaj, a former KLA member and current member of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK) that used to led by Thaçi. Kilaj is suspected of obstructing the administration of justice, possibly through interfering with witnesses.

Witness intimidation has been at the heart of the successive attempts by the international community to bring accountability on serious crimes committed in the Kosovo war. It was already a hurdle at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). For instance, when ICTY judges acquitted former KLA commander and DPK founding member Fatmir Limaj they wrote that many witnesses “expressed concerns for their lives and those of their family” and that fear was very perceptive, especially for witnesses still living in Kosovo.

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