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Kosovo Feels the Pressure Over New War Court

The controversy over a new special court intended to prosecute former KLA guerrillas for serious crimes committed during and after the 1998-99 war with Serbian forces continued to simmer throughout 2015.

The special court's opponents say it will unfairly target national heroes who fought for Kosovo's freedom from Serbian rule, tarnish the image of a 'just war', and benefit the country's enemies.

Some also argued that Kosovo's sovereignty would be undermined because the chambers will be partly located in The Netherlands, to ensure that they can work independently without interference.

The plan ran into trouble in June, when MPs failed to approve constitutional amendments aimed at paving the way for the establishment of the court and hundreds of veterans protested against it.

This led to increasing pressure from Kosovo's international backers.

"If you don't create this court yourselves, if you don't take your own steps for justice… the international community will do it instead," warned US diplomat Victoria Nuland during her visit to Kosovo in July.

The 50-page Law on Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office, which was negotiated between the EU and Kosovo, was finally passed in August after months of delays.

The three opposition parties that strongly opposed the new court, Vetevendosje (Self-Determination Movement), the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo and the Initiative for Kosovo (Nisma), boycotted the second round of voting.

The constitutional court in Pristina then rejected a request from three parties to review the establishment of the court.

According to the legislation, the 'specialist chambers' will be part of the country's justice system, but independent from the Kosovo judiciary.

They will be located in Kosovo but also in a so-called 'host state' - the Netherlands - and will have jurisdiction over crimes committed between January 1, 1998 until December 31, 2000.

The court is expected to hear cases arising from an EU Special Investigative Task Force report, which said unnamed KLA officials carried out a "campaign of persecution" against Serbs, Roma and Kosovo Albanians believed to be collaborators with the Belgrade regime. Their alleged crimes include killings, abductions, illegal detentions and sexual violence.

The report implicated Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci, who was the political head of the KLA during the conflict with Serbian forces, but he has strongly denied any wrongdoing.

Thaci said in September that Pristina has "nothing to hide" from the new court but refused to speculate about possible indictees.

In December, Prime Minister Isa Mustafa finally announced what had long been expected - that the Netherlands will be the host country for the court.

The agreement was not made public, but according to Pristina daily newspaper Koha Ditore, the most difficult point of the negotiations was the issue of international responsibility in case of complaints about human rights violations.

The Netherlands refused to take responsibility if such complaints end up at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg or the UN's human rights committee.

The agreement with the Netherlands still needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the Kosovo parliament, however.

Protests and benefits

2015 started with protests by Kosovo Albanians demanding the sacking of a Serb government minister, Aleksandar Jablanovic, who was accused of insulting war victims.

Jablanovic caused anger when he called Albanians who blockaded Serb pilgrims visiting a church in the town of Gjakova/Djakovica at Orthodox Christmas "savages".

"Savages in Djakovica have ruined the holiday for people who came to their houses that were burned [after the war in 1999]," Jablanovic said.

The Albanian protesters threw ice at the bus carrying the Serb pilgrims, claiming that some of them had taken part in war crimes during the 1998-99 conflict.

Jablanovic apologised for causing any offence, but was sacked by Prime Minister Mustafa on February 3.

Several protests were also held by former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters demanding the veterans' welfare benefits they had been promised by the state.

In February, a government verification commission announced that there were 23,684 KLA war veterans - a much smaller figure than the 65,000 who applied for veteran status.

But it was only in October that the authorities started to deliver certificates to KLA veterans which will enable them to apply for pensions. An unemployed war veteran will receive 170 euros a month.

Burials and convictions

In April, people in the village of Rrezalle/Rezala buried 28 bodies of war victims that were exhumed last year from a mass grave in southern Serbia. Over the course of 2015, the remains of 54 war victims were repatriated to Kosovo.

The mortal remains were found in a mass grave in the southern Raska region of Serbia about being removed from Kosovo in 1999 as part of an attempted cover-up.

In January, the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre published a report claiming that the current Serbian Army chief Ljubisa Dikovic, as a commander of the 37th Brigade of the Yugoslav Army during the Kosovo conflict, was responsible for the killings and the removal of bodies from Rrezalle/Rezala.

Dikovic has denied committing war crimes, and President Tomislav Nikolic insisted that the general was "an honourable officer of the Serbian Army".

In November, he visited Pristina to sign an agreement with NATO to lift air restrictions that were imposed in 1999, causing anger among war victims.

"This is a violation of the victims' dignity," said Bekim Blakaj from the Humanitarian Law Centre's office in Pristina.

In May, two former senior members of the Kosovo Liberation Army's 'Drenica Group' cell, Sami Lushtaku and Sylejman Selimi, were convicted of crimes against civilians during the 1998-99 conflict.

Lushtaku, the mayor of the Kosovo town of Skenderaj/Srbica, was convicted of murder, and Selimi, Pristina's former ambassador to Albania and ex-head of the Kosovo Security Force, was found guilty of torturing a civilian prisoner.

Lushtaku was jailed for 12 years and Selimi for six years, after a high-profile trial that was dogged by protests against the prosecutions of the former KLA fighters and a prison escape by three of the defendants. Nine other men were also convicted at the trial.

In November, an appeals court in Pristina rejected appeals from three former KLA guerrillas known as the 'Llapi Group' - including two current MPs - who were convicted in 2013 of torturing prisoners during wartime.

Latif Gashi, an MP with the ruling Kosovo Democratic Party (PDK), was sentenced to six years in prison, while Rrustem Mustafa, also a PDK MP, was sentenced to four years. The third defendant, Nazif Mehmeti, was sentenced to three years.

Rejection in Paris

After intensive lobbying campaigns by both Pristina and Belgrade, Kosovo's application to join UNESCO failed when it did not attract enough votes at the UN cultural body's general conference in Paris in November.

Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci said after the vote that Pristina will continue its efforts to join international organisations including UNESCO.

But Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic described the vote as a triumph for his country, which does not want its former province's claims to independence to be accepted around the world.

"This is a justified and moral victory in almost impossible conditions," Nikolic said.

Amid major political turbulence inside Kosovo, with opposition MPs repeatedly disrupting parliament in protest against Brussels-backed agreements with Serbia, and Pristina's failure in December to secure EU visa liberalisation, it was a disappointing end to the year for the authorities.

[Source: By Petrit Collaku, Balkan Transitional Justice, Birn, Pristina, 28Dec15]

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The Question of Kosovo
small logoThis document has been published on 26Jan16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.