Lawyers for Kosovo suspects: Trial can't start before 2022

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Hashim Thaci who resigned as Kosovo's president to face charges including murder, torture and persecution, and his attorney David Hooper, left, make their first courtroom appearance before a judge at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers court in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. An international prosecutor has indicted Thaci on 10 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his leadership of fighters with the Kosovo Liberation Army who are accused of illegally imprisoning, abusing and murdering captured opponents and perceived traitors during the war. (Jerry Lampen via AP Photo, Pool)

THE HAGUE – Defense lawyers for former leaders of Kosovo guerrillas, including ex-president Hashim Thaci, said Wednesday that their trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot begin before the summer of 2022 at the earliest.

The comments came at a procedural hearing in the case against Thaci and three other former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army who are in custody in The Hague awaiting trail on charges including murder, torture and illegal imprisonment allegedly committed during Kosovo's 1998-99 battle for independence from Serbia. They deny the allegations.

A prosecution lawyer told the hearing at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers that the trial could start in the summer of 2021. Prosecutors plan to present evidence from around 200 witnesses and 1,500 items of documentary evidence.

Thaci's lawyer, David Hooper, responded that “a minimum of 18 months is necessary before we would be, I think, even contemplating being trial ready. I find the suggestion that this case should go to trial in June absolutely absurd.”

Amid coronavirus restrictions in the Netherlands, all defendants and their lawyers appeared at the hearing via video links.

Defense lawyers argued that prosecutors have had years to prepare their indictment and case, while the defense has only just begun work following the recent arrests of the suspects and publication of their indictments.

Even so, Ben Emmerson, representing Kadri Veseli, sketched the outlines of his defense case, arguing that previous international trials of KLA leaders failed to establish that it was a well-structured fighting force with an overarching plan, known as a joint criminal enterprise, to commit crimes.

Instead, Emmerson said, the KLA was a barely organized band of part-time fighters engaged in a battle of self-defense against the well-organized Serbian forces. That lack of organization, he said, means that the suspects cannot be held responsible as commanders for crimes committed by individual fighters.

Most who died in the Kosovo war were ethnic Albanians and 1,641 people remain unaccounted for. A 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbian troops ended the fighting.

The formation of the Hague-based court and a special prosecutor’s office followed a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, a human rights body, that included allegations that KLA fighters trafficked human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and fellow ethnic Albanians considered traitors. The organ-harvesting allegations weren’t included in the indictment against Thaci and his co-defendants.