New court to open in The Hague to try Kosovo war crimes

15th January 2016, Comments 0 comments

A new EU-backed court to try war crimes allegedly committed by ethnic Albanian guerrillas during the bitter Kosovo conflict will open this year in The Hague, Dutch officials said Friday.

"The court will try serious crimes allegedly committed in 1999-2000 by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) against ethnic minorities and political opponents," the Dutch foreign ministry said in a statement.

Opening more than a decade and a half after the Kosovo war ended, the new tribunal will have international judges but will be part of the Kosovo judicial system. Those convicted will not serve their sentences in the Netherlands.

It will be housed in a former building belonging to the European police agency Europol, once a new extension has been built, and will be funded by the European Union.

The 1998-1999 war pitted ethnic Albanian guerrillas seeking independence for the southern Serbian province of Kosovo against Serbia's forces, who withdrew from the territory after an 11-week NATO bombing campaign.

Pristina has been under intense international pressure to create the special court since a 2011 Council of Europe report on alleged crimes by KLA members.

The report unveiled reports of abductions, summary executions and -- most controversially -- the trafficking of prisoners' organs, with special rapporteur Dick Marty accusing the KLA of abusing, torturing and killing 500 prisoners, mostly ethnic Serbs and Roma.

- Sensitive cases -

Marty's report notably pointed the finger at former guerrilla chief and prime minister Hashim Thaci, who is now Kosovo's foreign minister -- accusations Thaci has vehemently denied.

"This is a sensitive issue in Kosovo," the Dutch foreign ministry acknowledged.

"Possible suspects may be seen by sections of Kosovan society as freedom fighters, and witnesses may feel threatened in Kosovo. This is why the option of trying cases outside Kosovo was explored."

Establishing such a court triggered heated debate in Pristina, with the opposition boycotting the vote in August.

But Prime Minister Isa Mustafa told legislators at the time that such a tribunal was a key demand of Kosovo's strategic partners, especially the United States and the European Union.

A Kosovo government spokesman did not respond to an AFP request to comment on the issue.

But Ardian Arifaj, a political advisor to the minister of foreign affairs, who led the negotiations on the court confirmed the discussions with the Netherlands.

"This decision is the result of negotiations in which I've led the Kosovan delegation," he told AFP.

- UN court ending -

The war in Kosovo, which came amid the chaos of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, ended when a three-month long NATO air campaign drove Serbian forces out of the breakaway territory in June 1999.

The people of Albanian-majority Kosovo, with its population of some 1.8 million, unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008, a move that Serbia still refuses to recognise.

The new court will open as the International Criminal Tribune for the Former Yugoslavia, set up by the United Nations in 1993 as a temporary tribunal to deal with war crimes committed during the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s, is winding down having already issued its last indictments.

The ICTY has indicted some 161 people for crimes committed during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Some 80 people have been sentenced and 18 acquitted, while the cases against 36 others have been dropped or the defendants have died.

Among those convicted was Vladimir Lazarevic, the former commander of the Serb forces in Kosovo who was sentenced in 2009 to 15 years in prison, reduced on appeal to 14, for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.

Former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, a former KLA commander, was acquitted of war crimes by the ICTY. He is now a member of parliament and leader of an opposition party.

More than 10,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, were killed during the conflict. Some 1,700 are still officially missing.

© 2016 AFP

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