In the first verdict of the EU-backed Kosovo Specialised Chambers, Salih Mustafa was found guilty of arbitrarily detaining and torturing prisoners at his unit's compound in April 1999.
Kosovo's former guerilla commander was found guilty on Friday of arbitrarily detaining and torturing prisoners perceived as supporters of Serbia and murdering one of them during the 1998-1999 conflict.
It was the first war crimes conviction by a special court that was established in the Netherlands to investigate crimes from the conflict.
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers sentenced Salih Mustafa to 26 years in prison for the crimes committed at a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) compound in Zllash/Zlaš in April 1999.
Mustafa was acquitted of one charge of mistreating detainees. He had pleaded not guilty to all charges. All victims and witnesses are ethnic Albanians.
Mustafa, wearing a suit and tie, stood in silence as Presiding Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia pronounced the verdicts and his sentence. He has 30 days to declare whether he plans to appeal.
Mustafa was arrested in 2020 in Kosovo and sent to the Netherlands to stand trial at the EU-backed court, a branch of the country's legal system set up specifically to deal with allegations of war crimes committed during the conflict.
'Milestone' for the EU-backed court, judge says
The head of the prosecution team welcomed the verdicts.
"With today's verdict, the Specialist Chambers has shown that it is a court for and about victims and that there is no expiration date on accountability," Acting Specialist Prosecutor Alex Whiting said in a statement.
The court has detained Kosovo's former president, Hashim Thaçi, and he is awaiting trial with other suspects on charges that include murder, torture and persecution. He denies all allegations.
Thaci served as a guerrilla leader during Kosovo's war for independence before rising to political prominence in the aftermath of the conflict that killed more than 10,000 people.
His trial, along with three other accused, is expected to begin in March.
Judge Veldt-Foglia called Friday's judgment a "milestone for the specialist chambers" that could lead to "further reconciliation among communities in Kosovo".
Veldt-Foglia said the trial was focused solely on Mustafa's individual criminal responsibility for war crimes — and stressed that the KLA and the people of Kosovo were not targeted in the case.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," she said.
She also paid tribute to witnesses who testified in the trial, saying they did so "in a pervasive climate of fear and intimidation that persists in Kosovo to this day."
Mustafa was commander of a KLA guerrilla unit that had its base at the Zllash/Zlaš compound. The victims were accused by its fighters of collaborating with the ethnic Serbs or not supporting their cause.
As well as commanding the unit involved in the crimes, Mustafa personally mistreated two detainees, the court ruled.
"He subjected one of them to a mock execution. (Mustafa) also beat him repeatedly all over his body," Veldt-Foglia said.
The murder victim died of a combination of severe mistreatment, denial of medical aid and gunshot wounds.
While the court could not establish who shot the victim, it ruled that the abuse and lack of medical aid "are exclusively attributable to acts and omissions of Mr Mustafa and his subordinates".
Friday's judgment comes at a time of tense relations between Serbia and Kosovo, its former province.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Thursday demanded that Serbian security forces be allowed to return to Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
The West has warned the demand was highly unlikely to be accepted and would only stoke tensions in that part of the Balkans.
NATO peacekeepers — in the country since the end of the alliance's 1999 intervention against the regime in Belgrade — would have to grant the Serbian army permission to enter Kosovo, according to the Kumanovo Agreement signed at the time.