‘George Washington of Kosovo’ goes on trial for war crimes
Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leader Hashim Thaci pleaded not guilty on Monday before the EU-funded special tribunal in The Hague. Thaci and three other KLA leaders were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for their actions during the 1998-99 insurgency against Serbia, which NATO eventually launched an air war to support.
Prosecutors of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers Court charged Thaci, Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi, and former KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi with murder, torture, forced disappearances, persecution and cruel treatment of ethnic Albanians, Roma and Serbs, for the purpose of gaining control over the entire province.
“Why did they do it? The evidence will show that it was to gain power,” said prosecutor Alex Whiting, adding that the KLA had a “clear and explicit policy to target collaborators and perceived traitors, including political opponents.”
In addition to desire for power, the defendants were motivated by “fear” that their cause might be defeated and “hatred” of Serbs after clashes with the Yugoslav military and police, the prosecutors argued.
The indictment alleges that at least 407 people were abducted and extrajudicially imprisoned, and at least 100 of them were murdered, between January 1, 1998 and December 31, 2000. NATO launched a 78-day air war on behalf of the KLA in March 1999.
“I’m fully not guilty,” Thaci, 54, told the tribunal, repeating his plea from 2020 when he was detained. The others pleaded not guilty as well.
Thaci went from being a KLA commander known as ‘Snake’ to the leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the first prime minister of the self-proclaimed independent government in 2008. He became president in 2016, but stepped down after the indictment. Serbia does not recognize the breakaway province’s declaration of independence.
In 2010, a Council of Europe investigation linked Thaci to organized crime, including the trade of human organs forcibly harvested from KLA captives. When the UN tribunal’s case against other KLA leaders fell apart due to witness intimidation and murder, the Specialist Chambers was set up in 2015.
Thousands of ethnic Albanians rallied in Kosovo over the weekend to protest the trial, and several dozen protested outside the court in the Netherlands as well. Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, tweeted in support of Thaci, noting that he was “once hailed as the George Washington of Kosovo by Joe Biden himself!” The current US president was a senator at the time, and strongly supported the NATO war.
The German ambassador in Pristina also supported the court, tweeting: “It is not the KLA which is on trial… but individuals who are accused of i.e. grave war crimes.” However, the indictment specifically charges Thaci and others with being part of a “joint criminal enterprise” to take over Kosovo. That legal doctrine, devised by an American lawyer, was first used by the ad-hoc tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to go after the Serb military and political leadership.