Former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci on Monday pleaded not guilty to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at a trial in a special court in The Hague, where protesters rallied outside in support of the leader formerly feted by the West.
The 10 charges of persecution, murder, torture and forced disappearance of people stem from the 1998-99 insurgency that eventually brought independence from Serbia and made him a hero among many compatriots.
Thaci and three co-defendants, all principle leaders of the KLA guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and later in peacetime politics, all pleaded not guilty shortly after hearings got underway.
“I understand the indictment and I am fully not guilty,” Thaci, 54, said in court. Dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, he looked pale and grayer after two years in detention.
More than 13,000 people, the majority of them members of Kosovo’s 90% ethnic Albanian majority, are believed to have died during the insurgency, when it was still a province of Serbia under then-strongman president Slobodan Milosevic.
The trial, conducted by international judges and prosecutors, began with opening statements by the prosecution followed by defence lawyers and a representative of Kosovo’s war Victims Council over the ensuing three days.
In the Hague, protesters carried banners bearing Thaci’s image. Another protest in Kosovo on Sunday attracted thousands of supporters.
Thaci resigned as president shortly after his indictment in 2020 and was transferred to detention in The Hague.
The defendants targeted political opponents, ethnic Serbs and Roma, during and just after the conflict, prosecutor Alex Whiting said in an opening statement. Prosecutors said there were hundreds of detainees held across Kosovo in terrible conditions and over 100 were murdered. Most victims were Kosovo Albanians.
“Why the crimes were committed? The evidence will show to gain power,” Whiting said.
The four defendants are charged with participating in a “joint criminal enterprise … that carried out widespread or systematic attacks” on KLA opponents.
TRIAL COULD LAST YEARS
The trial is likely to be lengthy as prosecutors said they would need two years to present their evidence.
During his time as a KLA leader and a prominent politician, Thaci worked closely with many Western leaders. Joe Biden, when he was U.S. vice president, called him “the George Washington of Kosovo” and Thaci was en route to a meeting at Donald Trump’s White House when his indictment was announced.
The trial began two weeks after the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal, the International Criminal Court (ICC), also based in the Hague, issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the alleged crime of deporting Ukrainian children.
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers, seated in the Netherlands and staffed by international judges and lawyers, was set up in 2015 to handle cases under Kosovo law against ex-KLA guerrillas.
Many Kosovars believe that the tribunal is biased against the KLA and interested in denigrating its record in paving the way to liberation of the ethnic-Albanian majority region from repressive Serbian rule.
The court was created separately from the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), also held in the Hague, which tried and convicted mainly Serbian officials for war crimes in the Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts.
Milosevic went on trial before the ICTY but he died in 2006 before a verdict was reached.