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Former KLA officer Salih Mustafa, accused of murder, torture and cruel treatment during the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict, appears before a special tribunal set up to hear cases of war crimes allegedly committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), in The Hague September 15, 2021. — Robin van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/Pool pic via Reuters
Former KLA officer Salih Mustafa, accused of murder, torture and cruel treatment during the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict, appears before a special tribunal set up to hear cases of war crimes allegedly committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), in The Hague September 15, 2021. — Robin van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/Pool pic via Reuters

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THE HAGUE, Sept 15 — A former Kosovo rebel commander compared a war crimes court to Nazi Germany’s secret police as it began its first trial in The Hague today.

Salih Mustafa is accused of murder and torture at a makeshift Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) detention centre during the 1998-1999 independence war with Serbia. 

“I am not guilty of any of the counts brought here before me by this Gestapo office,” Mustafa, 49, said as his trial started at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers.

Wearing a black hooded top and jogging pants, Mustafa swung in his chair and repeatedly tapped a pen on his fingers as he listened to the opening of the trial through headphones.

Mustafa, who was arrested last year while working as an adviser at Kosovo’s defence ministry, is the first suspect to go on trial at the court, set up in 2015 to probe atrocities by the separatist KLA.

Prosecutors said Mustafa and his men “brutalised and tortured” fellow ethnic Kosovo Albanians whom they accused of collaborating with Serbs in Zllash, a village east of the capital Pristina.

“These were not enemies of Kosovo, they were not spies,” senior prosecutor Jack Smith told the court in his opening statement.

“Their only crime was to have political views that differed from the KLA and its senior leaders.”

‘Beaten and tortured’

The prosecutor said the hearing was a “milestone” for the court, which has taken six years to bring anyone to trial and faced problems with witness intimidation.

Mustafa faces charges of murder, torture, cruel treatment and arbitrary detention relating to at least six detainees.

According to the indictment, detainees were allegedly held in a locked stable and subjected to “beatings with various instruments, burning and the administration of electric shocks”. Some were urinated on in front of other detainees.

Mustafa is alleged to have personally beaten one detainee with a baseball bat and slapped, punched and kicked another. 

Smith said prisoners were kept in “inhumane” conditions with Mustafa personally taking part in the beatings.

One young man died after being “repeatedly beaten and tortured”.

Mustafa is accused of being jointly responsible for the murder by either being aware that the crime was being carried out, or knowing that the victim was at risk of being killed.

The trial will hear from 16 witnesses, including former detainees, during September and October.

‘They are heroes’

The Kosovo war, which left 13,000 people dead, ended when Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s forces withdrew after an 11-week Nato bombing campaign.

After the wars that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a host of Serbian war criminals were convicted in other international courts.

But rebel leaders of the KLA have also been accused of revenge attacks on Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanian rivals during and after the fighting.

“War crimes on one side do not justify war crimes on the other side,” said prosecutor Smith.

The court’s activities are highly sensitive as former rebel commanders still dominate political life in Kosovo and are treated by many as heroes.

Kosovo’s then-president Hashim Thaci was indicted in June 2020 for his alleged role in nearly 100 murders during the conflict while he led the KLA.

“They can condemn Mustafa and the others 100 times, but for me they are the heroes who had the courage to stand up against Serbia,” Adem Idrizi, 65, a pensioner from Pristina, told AFP.

But others trusted the tribunal to do its job.

“I believe that the international judges will establish the truth. I only believe the evidence,” said law graduate Blerta Hyseni, 24. 

International tensions over Kosovo remain to this day, with the United States and most of the West recognising Kosovo, while Belgrade and its allies Russia and China do not. — AFP

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