The head of a Netherlands-based court investigating war crimes allegedly committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during its conflict with Serb forces two decades ago has urged EU diplomats to help fight back against a campaign to undermine its work in Kosovo.
In a confidential briefing to European diplomats in the Hague on February 11, Kosovo Specialist Chambers President Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova warned that the court was facing increased efforts from within Kosovo to hinder ongoing legal proceedings, including against former Kosovan president, Hashim Thaci, who was indicted on war crimes charges last year.
In a transcript of the briefing, obtained by Euronews, Trendafilova said that attempts were already being made to challenge the law that set up the court in 2015, and could include efforts to either pardon those convicted of crimes or even see the entire court - and its vast confidential records - moved from the Hague, where it is currently based, to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.
“This certainly will put at stake the life, safety and security of people who have or will be willing to cooperate with us. Such changes would, certainly, have a chilling effect on witnesses, who may no longer want to appear, thus making it impossible for the Specialist Prosecutor to continue with his cases,” Trendafilova said.
Trendafilova, who is Bulgarian, also warned about the safety of witnesses appearing for the prosecution in ongoing cases, and urged European nations to consider “comprehensive cooperation agreements” that could see witnesses and their families relocated to Europe.
“Without these agreements, it will be very difficult if not impossible in some cases to ensure that testimony can be given freely and without any fear,” Trendafilova said.
The court indicted Thaci and the former speaker of Kosovo’s parliament, Kadri Veseli, on war crimes charges in October, along with two other former KLA militants.
Both men were senior commanders during 1998 and 1999 when the NATO-backed KLA fought Yugoslav army units and Serb paramilitaries after a campaign of brutal ethnic cleansing which saw hundreds of thousands of Kosovars forced from their homes and thousands murdered.
The indictment against Thaci, Veseli and two others allege that they were responsible for atrocities against Serbs and other minorities, as well as ethnic Albanians accused of being collaborators with the Serbian forces. All of the men deny the charges against them.
A spokesperson for the Kosovo Specialist Chambers told Euronews that the briefing was confidential and the transcript had been circulated accidentally and was intended for the internal use of diplomatic missions. It is not clear how many people received the transcript.
The indictments of Thaci and Veseli, and the work of the court in general, have been controversial since it was set up in 2015 by an act of the Kosovar parliament.
Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, has been led largely by politicians that were former KLA fighters, including Thaci, who served two terms as president.
Even those who are no friends of the old guard of Kosovar politicians - such as Albin Kurti, the leader of the Vetevensdosje movement - have criticised the court. Kurti has called for charges of war crimes to be heard in local courts and not in The Hague, where Kosovo Specialist Chambers is based.
Unlike the International Tribunal for Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which probed war crimes abuses across the Balkans following the wars of the 1990s, Kurti - who is likely to be Kosovo's next prime minister after Sunday's election - said that the Hague-based court had singled out the KLA.
Euronews has reached out to a spokesperson for Kurti and to Kosovo's Ministry of Justice for comment.
Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic was indicted for war crimes by the ICTY along with seven other Serbian military and political figures after the war in Kosovo. Six were convicted and sentenced to between 15 and 27 years in prison, and one was acquitted. Milosevic died during his trial in 2006 for crimes committed in Kosovo as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The ICTY also indicted a number of former KLA leaders for war crimes, some of whom had risen to senior positions within the government of Kosovo.
In 2005, after he had served as prime minister for just 100 days, the KLA’s former commander for Western Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), stepped down and delivered himself to the Hague.
Haradinaj was found not guilty in 2008, tried again in 2011 and once again acquitted.