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Kosovo war veterans imprisoned for witness intimidation by specialised court

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By Euronews  with AP, AFP
Hysni Gucati is the former leader of Kosovo Liberation Army veterans' association.
Hysni Gucati is the former leader of Kosovo Liberation Army veterans' association.   -   Copyright  Piroschka Van De Wouw/REUTERS//Pool Photo via AP

Two leaders of a Kosovo war veterans’ association have been jailed for witness intimidation and obstruction of justice.

A European Union-backed war crimes court convicted Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj on Wednesday, handing them a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence and a €100 fine each.

It is the first verdict handed down by the court after it was established in 2015.

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers said the two suspects had prevented "effective investigations and prosecutions” of former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army or KLA.

The former fighters were found to have publicised leaked confidential documents about prosecutors' "investigations and internal work" at press conferences in September 2020. 

This included the identities of hundreds of witnesses and potential witnesses.

Gucati and Haradinaj had also publicly called witnesses “traitors,” “spies,” and “collaborators,” the court said.

The tribunal found that their actions had intended “to make witnesses and potential witnesses fearful and therefore hesitant to provide information."

"This judgment clearly portrays these acts for what they are: criminal and unpatriotic," said Presiding Judge Charles Smith.

The two were however acquitted of retaliation after prosecutors failed to present evidence. The time they served in detention since their arrest will also be deducted from their sentence, the court confirmed.

The ad-hoc Hague-based court is investigating alleged war crimes linked to the actions of the KLA during the 1998-1999 conflict in Kosovo.

Prosecutors have charged several people -- including former Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi -- with murder, torture and persecution. All the suspects have denied the allegations.

Gucati, who was chairman of the Kosovo Liberation Army War Veterans Association, and Haradinaj, his deputy, were arrested in September 2020.

It is not clear whether Gucati and Haradinaj would appeal their convictions and sentences. Both pleaded not guilty when the trial opened last October.

Gucati’s replacement at the veterans’ association, Faton Klinaku, described the verdicts as “political” and “onesided,” and accused the court of not dealing with alleged war crimes committed by Serbs during the same war.

Witness intimidation has been a major problem in international prosecutions of crimes committed during the Kosovo conflict.

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 -- a move recognised by most EU countries, but not by the government in Belgrade, supported by China and Russia.