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President Biden urged to move EU-backed war crimes court to Kosovo

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Hashim Thaci who resigned as Kosovo's president to face charges including murder, torture and persecution, makes their first courtroom appearance before a judge at the Kosovo
Hashim Thaci who resigned as Kosovo's president to face charges including murder, torture and persecution, makes their first courtroom appearance before a judge at the Kosovo   -   Copyright  Jerry Lampen/AP
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American veterans of Kosovo's war against Serbia between 1998 and 1999 have written to President Joe Biden urging him to uproot a Europe-based war crimes tribunal that recently indicted Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, from the Netherlands and move it to Kosovo.

In a letter to Biden dated March 24, Gani Shehu, a former commander with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), argues that the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which is probing atrocities during the conflict, is being used by European nations to undermine Kosovo’s relationship with the U.S.

Shehu is president of the Atlantic Association, formed of veterans of the Atlantic Battalion, a unit of Kosovo Albanians living in the U.S. that joined the KLA to fight in the war 22 years ago.

The letter comes on the anniversary of NATO’s intervention in the conflict on the side of the KLA and against the forces of Slobodan Milosevic on March 24, 1999. In it, Shehu reminds Biden that he once referred to Thaci, who was indicted by the KSC last year, as “the George Washington of Kosovo.”

Thaci was a senior commander of the KLA and president of Kosovo until he resigned in November 2020. He is accused of crimes against humanity and responsibility for at least 100 murders of Serbs, Roma and Albanians believed to be collaborators. He denies the charges.

“Today Thaci languishes in a detention cell at the Hague along with four other Albanians who risked their lives fighting against Yugoslav tyranny and the occupation of Kosovo,” Shehu writes.

“It would be impossible to fathom someone daring to indict or even detain George Washington for fighting for the freedom and independence of the U.S.”

Kosovo’s parliament agreed to set up the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and the Specialist Prosecutors Office in 2015 to investigate war crimes allegedly carried out during the 1998-99 war. It followed allegations by former UN special prosecutor Carla Del Ponte that the KLA had carried out atrocities in northern Kosovo during and immediately after the conflict with Serbia.

A subsequent report claimed that while organ trafficking had been carried out “on a very limited scale”, the KLA had carried out a campaign of persecution in the wake of the conflict, which was organised and sanctioned by “the top levels of KLA leadership”. Among those named as being involved was Thaci, who in 2008 took Kosovo to independence from Serbia.

Although the KSC/SPO was set up by an act of Kosovo’s parliament, the court is unpopular in Kosovo, where the KLA is viewed as a liberating force that saved Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority from a campaign of brutal ethnic cleansing by Milosevic’s forces. Many Kosovars resent that the court is based in the Hague, not Pristina, and employs an entirely non-Kosovar staff.

Albin Kurti

Those critics include the country’s new prime minister, Albin Kurti, who told Euronews that allegations against the KLA should be handled by Kosovo’s courts. He also said that the charges against Thaci, one of his biggest political rivals, were “not believable”.

“The KLA did not have a plan, or a programme, against Serbs. We were fighting a liberation war against Serbia as a state,” he said.

Shehu echoes those sentiments in his letter to Biden, arguing that “the aggressors in Kosovo were Serbia and Yugoslavia [but] the only defendants which have been arrested by the Special [sic] Chambers are Kosovo citizens [...]. No Serbs or members of other ethnicities have been indicted by KSC. This renders the Special [sic] Chambers a monoethnic court.”

“We of course believe that all crimes should be brought to light and all victims, regardless of their ethnicity, should find justice. However it appears that the Special Chambers is not seeking justice but rather the revision of history,” he continued.

Shehu said that the KSC was being used to undermine the interests of both Kosovo and the U.S. by “several European countries” but did not elaborate on the allegation. He urged Biden to “move the Special Court from The Hague to Kosovo.

“Kosovo is a sovereign country and should administer justice and its judicial system herself.”

Speaking to Euronews on Wednesday, Uk Lushi, the spokesperson for the Atlantic Alliance, said that given the lack of evidence for the allegations of organ trafficking - which have not been included on any of the indictments of former KLA figures so far - the KSC should be dismantled.

"Kosovo was the victim. Now, imagine for a moment, how the Jews would feel if the world would create a Specialist Court to try them and not Nazi Germany," he said.

"We were the Jews during the Kosovo war and it's us who are at the Special Chambers and not Milosevic's killers of children, women, and old people."

It is not the first time that the question of the court’s location and remit has been raised since Thaci’s indictment. Euronews revealed in February that Kosovo Specialist Chambers President Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova had urged EU diplomats in a secret briefing to help fight back against a campaign against the court being waged in Pristina.

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.

Euronews has reached out to the White House for comment.

The Specialist Prosecutor's Office and the Kosovo Specialist Chambers declined to comment.