Next Kosovo president says 'nothing to hide' from war crimes court

3 minApproximate reading time

Kosovo's president-elect has pledged to "fully support" a new war crimes court prosecuting members of the guerrilla group he once led -- despite a question mark hanging over whether he himself will be indicted.

Hashim Thaci, elected by parliament in February as the next head of state, made his name as political leader of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought against Serbia for independence in the late 1990s.

But as he prepares to step into the top job next month, speculation is mounting over whether he could be summoned to a court due to open in The Hague this year, trying crimes allegedly committed by senior KLA members.

The court's creation stems from a Council of Europe report in 2011, when Thaci was prime minister. It accused him of heading a mafia-style network involved in assassinations, unlawful detentions and even trafficking captives' organs during and after the war.

Thaci, whose nom de guerre was "the Snake", has consistently denied the explosive claims, telling AFP ahead of his election to the presidency that "under no circumstances did I violate international law".

"I know that the Kosovo struggle and the KLA struggle was a clean and just one. Nobody can rewrite history," the 47-year-old said, stressing Kosovo's full cooperation over the EU-funded court.

"We have met all the requests and demands, and because we have nothing to hide we fully support any attempts to do justice."

The 1998-1999 conflict came to an end when Serbian forces retreated from Kosovo following an 11-week bombing campaign by NATO. Kosovo subsequently became a United Nations protectorate and, under Thaci's leadership, declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

- 'Raising the stakes' -

Seventeen years after the war, the officially-titled "Kosovo Relocated Specialist Judicial Institution" is being established under Kosovan law, but situated in The Hague to ensure witness protection in the highly sensitive cases.

Made up of international judges, it is to try "serious crimes allegedly committed in 1999-2000 by members of the KLA against ethnic minorities and political opponents," the Dutch government announced in January.

The indictments will be based on the findings of an EU Special Investigative Task Force (SITF) formed in 2011 to probe allegations in the Council of Europe report.

The SITF's former chief prosecutor said in 2014 that their findings were largely consistent, and included "compelling evidence" to indict certain senior KLA officials for crimes against Serbs, Roma, other ethnic minorities and Albanian opponents.

"On this basis, Thaci should figure among those who will be indicted before the end of this year," a Western diplomat in Kosovo told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"Though building a solid prosecution case against Kosovo's most senior political figure will depend on who is willing to testify against him."

The diplomat said Thaci's ascension to head of state "will raise the stakes in any indictment", but he added that the new president "will be eager to clear both his own name, and the reputation of the KLA".

The new SITF chief prosecutor, David Schwendiman, told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network last week that there was "no amnesty" for anyone who violated international humanitarian law.

- 'Political manoeuvre' -

Both ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs in Kosovo are however sceptical about what the new court will achieve and the motivations behind it.

Some witnesses have died, others will have poor memories of events and intimidation is a major concern, analysts say. During previous trials of KLA members, witnesses disappeared or died in suspicious circumstances.

Sceptics also question why action was not taken earlier, either during UN protection or since 2008 by the EU's Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) in Kosovo.

"The idea for an external court was more of a political manoeuvre by the EU in an attempt to save face after (the) near failure of the EULEX mission," said political scientist Krenar Gashi.

He worried the court was "raising high hopes" among Serbs "for some kind of a political balance" in terms of war crimes trials, which could jeopardise ongoing EU-mediated talks to improve relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

While Thaci, under international pressure, has supported the court's creation, his political rivals -- including some former KLA allies -- have opposed its establishment, seeing it as unconstitutional and an affront to the guerrilla struggle.

Leading opposition figure Albin Kurti suggested a more pressing need was to tackle alleged post-war corruption.

"I don't think that Thaci did many wrong things during the war, I think he did too many wrong things after the war," Kurti said.

As Kosovo struggles to win full recognition of its independence -- still denied by several countries including Serbia -- political analyst Bekim Kupina said the president's indictment would be "a very risky step".

"He represents all citizens of Kosovo... His burden would fall on the whole country."