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Kosovo court facing tough challenges in search for justice

By MIKE CORDERJanuary 14, 2019
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In this Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 photo, former Kosovo Liberation Army fighter Sabahajdin Cena looks at his dog's kennel, in the town of Rahovec. Two decades after Kosovo’s 1998-99 war of independence, a court in The Hague has summoned a small group of former freedom fighters for questioning about their roles in the bloody campaign. Cena was a top former fighter in Pashtrik area, 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of the capital, Pristina, during the war. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
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In this Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 photo, former Kosovo Liberation Army fighter Sabahajdin Cena looks at his dog's kennel, in the town of Rahovec. Two decades after Kosovo’s 1998-99 war of independence, a court in The Hague has summoned a small group of former freedom fighters for questioning about their roles in the bloody campaign. Cena was a top former fighter in Pashtrik area, 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of the capital, Pristina, during the war. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Two decades after Kosovo’s 1998-99 war of independence, a court in The Hague has summoned a small group of former freedom fighters for questioning about their roles in the bloody campaign.

The orders to appear in The Hague haven’t been confirmed by the prosecutor preparing cases for the court, who declined to be interviewed, but they have been widely publicized in Kosovo, where the court is viewed with suspicion by many.

Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, himself twice acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a U.N. court, met Sunday with two fellow former fighters preparing to face questioning in The Hague.

Haradinaj said the 1998-1999 war was “clean and sacred.”

Lawyer Arianit Koci said the men, Rrustem Mustafa and Sami Lushtaku, were set to be interviewed Monday and Wednesday, respectively.

President Hashim Thaci, who also fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army, expressed support for the pair as well.

“You are the war national heroes and you always will remain as such for the Kosovo institutions and the people,” Thaci wrote on his Facebook page.

The 20-year gap between the war and the current phase of the investigation underscores the difficulty of meting out justice in the still tense, ethnically divided Kosovo, whose 2008 declaration of independence isn’t recognized by Serbia.

Many former KLA wartime leaders are now in senior positions of power, including Haradinaj and Thaci.

Probing what are effectively cold cases is just one of the challenges facing the European Union-funded court called the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office that is investigating alleged atrocities.

It is far from the only one for the court, which is officially part of Kosovo’s judicial system. It was set up following U.S. and EU pressure four years after a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, which catalogued allegations of widespread crimes committed by members of the KLA, including the harvesting of organs for illicit transplantations from a small number of prisoners.

Kosovo’s 1998-99 war, which ended with a 78-day NATO air campaign, left more than 10,000 dead and 1,650 are still unaccounted for.

The key challenge for prosecutors now building cases is protecting witnesses willing to testify against fighters considered by many ethnic Albanian Kosovars to be liberators of their country.

Previous trials focused on Kosovo at the U.N. tribunal that prosecuted crimes committed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s were derailed by widespread witness interference — including the trial of Haradinaj.

He was acquitted in 2008 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia of crimes against humanity and war crimes. In a written judgment, judges said witness intimidation appeared widespread. Appeals judges ordered a retrial that also acquitted Haradinaj and two co-defendants.

Former U.S. War Crimes Ambassador Clint Williamson led an EU-funded Special Investigative Task Force to further look into the allegations in the Council of Europe report. He knows how hard it can be to build a solid case.

“Kosovo’s a very small country and everybody kind of knows each other,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “So it’s a challenging environment in which to conduct a sensitive investigation and to move forward with prosecutions.”

Williamson issued a report in 2014 saying his task force concluded that widespread crimes committed just after the war ended in 1999 justified a prosecution for crimes against humanity against “several senior officials of the former KLA.” The report didn’t name the officials.

The report said it found “compelling indications” that a small number of prisoners were killed so their organs could be removed and sold, but not enough evidence to support an indictment at that time.

Move forward more than four years and there still have been no indictments and the court doesn’t even have a permanent home yet. Staff work in an office complex on the edge of The Hague while renovation work, expected to be completed in coming months, continues on its new home in the city — a building that formerly housed EU police agency Europol.

Sabahajdin Cena, a 65-year-old retired language professor, is one of the Kosovars expected in The Hague this week. He says he will go to “bear accountability for my pride as an independence fighter, or as an individual.”

He is unhappy that the court’s mandate only covers the Council of Europe report into alleged crimes by KLA fighters during a three-year period from 1998 until the end of 2000 and not by Serbs who carried out brutal campaigns in Kosovo.

“It is unfair we are invited and not the Serbs,” Cena told The Associated Press. Several Serbs were convicted at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal for crimes in Kosovo.

Veljko Odalovic, the senior Serbian government official dealing with the missing from the Balkan wars, has welcomed reports that former KLA fighters will be questioned.

“It is very important that someone has mustered strength and acknowledged that grave crimes took place over the Serb and other non-Albanian population,” Odalovic said.

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Sylejman Kllokoqi in Pristina, Kosovo, Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia contributed to this report.

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