THE HAGUE – Prosecutors at a European Union-backed Kosovo war crimes court said that two leaders of a war veterans' association who went on trial Thursday deliberately tried to undermine investigations by intimidating witnesses and publicizing leaked confidential documents.
Hysni Gucati, who was chairman of the Kosovo Liberation Army War Veterans Association when he was arrested last year, and his deputy, Nasim Haradinaj, were charged with obstructing justice and intimidation for allegedly revealing information that included the identity of potential witnesses at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers court.
“Mr. Gucati and Mr Haradinaj are vocal opponents of this institution, denigrating anyone who would recognize or cooperate with the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, or the specialist prosecutor’s office as spies, collaborators and traitors who betrayed their fellow countrymen,” Specialist Prosecutor Jack Smith told judges.
Both men pleaded innocent in September 2020, and they told Presiding Judge Charles Smith III on Thursday that they were not guilty of all charges.
“I am always against injustice,” Haradinaj said.
Witness intimidation has been a major problem in international prosecutions of crimes committed during Kosovo's 1998-1999 fight to break away from Serbia, and the Hague-based court is working hard to protect the people who offer to assist its investigations.
While the court is part of the Kosovo legal system, it was established in The Hague in part as a response to fears for the safety of witnesses.
“This court can only work if witnesses feel safe to tell their stories. Our ability as an institution to protect witnesses and their families from intimidation, retribution and worse is the foundation upon which any effective tribunal of this nature must be built," Smith said. “Put very plainly, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers cannot effectively execute on its mandate if conduct like that of the accused is permitted to occur.”
The first witnesses are scheduled to testify in the trial later this month.
The veterans' association represents former ethnic Albanian separatists who fought Serbian troops in the war for independence.
More than 10,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, died during the war in Kosovo. About 1 million were driven from their homes before a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbia to pull its troops out of the country and to cede control to the United Nations and NATO.
Thousands of Serb civilians also fled with the Serbian army and police. Those who stayed behind later faced revenge attacks.
The special court is investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity linked to the actions of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the conflict. It has indicted several people, including former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, on charges of murder, torture and persecution. Thaci has denied the charges.
The court and a linked prosecutor’s office were established following a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, a human rights body, that included allegations that Kosovo Liberation Army fighters trafficked human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and fellow ethnic Albanians.
Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. The United States and most of the West recognize Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia — supported by allies Russia and China — does not.
Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia remain despite European Union-brokered talks to normalize relations between Pristina and Belgrade that started in 2011.
Soldiers with a NATO-led peacekeeping mission are currently keeping watch at the Kosovo-Serbia border after the two countries reached a deal to deescalate tensions triggered by a dispute over vehicle license plates.