Former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci pleaded not guilty to allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity on Monday, as his trial opened at a special court in The Hague, with demonstrators marching outside in favor of a leader long lauded by the West.
Thaci and three co-defendants face ten counts of persecuting, murdering, torturing, and forcibly disappearing persons during and immediately after the 1998-99 conflict, which resulted in Kosovo’s independence from Serbia and made Thaci a hero among many countrymen both at home and abroad.
Prosecutor Alex Whiting said the four had targeted political opponents, as well as minority ethnic Serbs and Roma, imprisoning hundreds across Kosovo in terrible conditions and murdering 102 of them. Most victims were members of Kosovo’s 90% ethnic Albanian majority, he said.
“There can be no justification…for arbitrarily detaining civilians and persons out of combat and subjecting them to abuse, torture, and murder…That is why the prosecution brought this case, to vindicate the rule of law and the principle that nobody is above the law, even during wartime,” Whiting said.
The four defendants, all principal leaders of the former guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and later in peacetime politics of the small Balkan country, all pleaded not guilty shortly after hearings got underway.
“I understand the indictment and I am fully not guilty,” Thaci, 54, said in court. Dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, the tall, strapping Thaci looked pale and grayer after two years in detention.
More than 13,000 people, the majority of them Kosovo Albanians, are believed to have died during the insurgency, when Kosovo was still a province of Serbia under then-strongman president Slobodan Milosevic.
Thousands of Kosovars gathered in the capital Pristina on Sunday in protest at the trial, and hundreds rallied outside the court in The Hague on Monday, holding banners with Thaci’s image and chanting “KLA” in support of the independence movement.
In Pristina, resident Nazmi Kelmendi said on Monday that “not only is the just war of the KLA being judged, the state of Kosovo is also on trial”.
Lawyers for the alleged victims of the four co-defendants told the court that the people they represent were a diverse cross-section of Kosovo society – “teachers, policemen, farmers, builders who were abducted at gunpoint…
“For each of them there was one day that changed their lives forever, or in too many cases, ended their lives,” the victims’ legal representative Simon Laws said.