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Defendant bids to oust Kosovo war crimes judges in new blow for court

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By Euronews
FILE: Members of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) take part in a ceremony honouring  a Kosovo Liberation Army commander, Pristina, Monday, March 5, 2018.
FILE: Members of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) take part in a ceremony honouring a Kosovo Liberation Army commander, Pristina, Monday, March 5, 2018.   -   Copyright  Visar Kryeziu/AP
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A defendant has requested the recusal of top magistrates at The Hague-based court tasked with trying war crimes committed during the Kosovo war, accusing them of lacking independence and impartiality.

Such a request for the disbarment of the president and vice president of a court is unusual in international law.

The application for recusal reads: "President Trendafilova’s statements at a confidential diplomatic briefing undermine her independent and impartial judicial decision-making and representation of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and seriously harm the proper administration of justice."

"Vice President Smith’s prior conduct in a high judicial office in the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (“EULEX”), including alleged demonstrated abuse of judicial authority and exercise of political pressure that undermines his judicial decision-making and risks seriously harming the proper administration of justice before the Specialist Chambers," the application went on.

The recusal request was made on behalf of Nasim Haradinaj, a former deputy chairman of the Kosovo Liberation Army War Veterans’ Organisation.

He was arrested in September 2020 and transferred to The Hague where has since been detained.

Haradinaj has been charged with "offences against the administration of justice," including "intimidation of witnesses, retaliation and violation of the secrecy of proceedings," prosecutors said.

The KSC was set up in 2016 to try crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during its conflict with Serb forces two decades ago. The ethnic-Albanian paramilitary organisation sought the independence of Kosovo from Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008, has been led largely by politicians that were former KLA fighters. Former Kosovan president Hashim Thaci is among those who have been indicted for war crimes by the special court.

The KSC 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 Serb forces.

Many Kosovars resent that the court is based in the Hague, not Pristina, and employs an entirely international staff.

In March, Euronews published a leaked transcript of a confidential briefing with European diplomats held by court president Ekaterina Trendafilova.

In it, the Bulgarian-born judge warned that the court was facing increased efforts from within Kosovo to hinder ongoing legal proceedings.

The separate diplomatic briefing referred to in the application for recusal dates back from December 2020.

Haradinaj's defence team alleges that "the statements made by the President" on this occasion are "wholly unacceptable and constitute the most blatant interference with the fair and proper administration of justice".

According to the application for recusal, citing confidential diplomatic notes, Trendafilova allegedly complained to European diplomats, of "a large \_number of lawyers which complicates the work of the Specialist Chambers_."

Meanwhile, the Special Prosecutor reportedly told diplomats that one of the defendants "will get life sentences in advance of any trial commencing or any evidence being presented," the application read.

Haradinaj's lawyer Toby Cadman confirmed to Euronews that he had filed the application for recusal on behalf of his client and that they "expected the court to take it seriously".

"We cannot comment on the outcome of the decision, which will be rendered in due course," the court said in a statement to Euronews.