Salih Mustafa and his lawyer Julius von Bone in court on Wednesday. Photo: Kosovo Specialist Chambers/Screenshot.
First trial of Kosovo ex-guerrilla opens at Hague War Crimes Court
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague began its first war crimes trial in the case against former Kosovo Liberation Army unit commander Salih Mustafa, who is accused of illegally detaining and torturing prisoners in 1999.
Former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA unit commander Salih Mustafa went on trial at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers on Wednesday, charged with involvement in murder, torture, cruel treatment and arbitrary detentions during the Kosovo war in April 1999.
“Today marks a milestone for this institution and our work,” prosecutor Jack Smith said in his opening statement on Wednesday.
Mustafa is accused of committing the crimes at a KLA-run detention compound in Zllash/Zlas in Kosovo, against prisoners accused by the guerrilla fighters of collaborating with enemy Serbs or not supporting the KLA’s cause.
“You will see the victims of Mr. Mustafa were fellow Kosovo Albanians… They were not enemies of the state of Kosovo, they were not spies, they were fellow community members,” prosecutor Smith told the court.
“The truth to be laid out in this court in the upcoming week is that KLA leaders… managed to victimise and brutalise fellow Kosovo Albanians who had different opinions from KLA leaders” or were part of a rival ethnic Albanian political force, the Democratic League of Kosovo, said Smith.
“In the course of this case you will hear from victims who have waited two decades to be heard for crimes committed against them and their family members”, including the relatives of a victim who did not survive, the prosecutor added.
Mustafa’s indictment alleges that he was part of a “joint criminal enterprise”, alongside “certain other KLA soldiers, police, and guards”, which had a “shared common purpose to interrogate and mistreat detainees”.
The defendant told the court on Wednesday that he understands the indictment, “but there is nothing real about it”.
“I am not guilty anything that this Gestapo is blaming me for,” Mustafa added.
He pleaded not guilty at a pre-trial hearing in October 2020.
A second prosecutor, Cezary Michalzuk, told Wednesday’s hearing that several victims will testify during the trial that Mustafa personally tortured them or ordered them to be tortured.
“The screams of the tortured were so loud they could be heard by the prisoners one floor below,” Michalzuk alleged.
He said that at least one victim will testify that the people who arrested him “wore uniforms with a red and black insignia with a hawk and the word skifterat [hawk in Albanian] around it”, which the prosecution claims was the insignia of the KLA’s BIA unit, which Mustafa commanded during the war.
The prosecution showed photographs of Mustafa wearing a red and black beret, and of the compound in Zllash/Zlas where it claims that his BIA unit illegally held and mistreated detainees.
Michalzuk said that “former members of KLA will testify that this compound was occupied by BIA” and that “several witnesses placed the accused at the compound in Zllash/Zlas during the time” of the alleged crimes.
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers were established to prosecute KLA fighters for crimes committed during the guerrilla force’s 1998-99 war of resistance against Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic’s repressive rule.
They are part of Kosovo’s justice system but are located in The Hague and staffed by internationals. They were set up under pressure from Kosovo’s Western allies, who feared that Kosovo’s justice system was not robust enough to try KLA cases and protect witnesses from interference.
But the so-called ‘special court’ is widely resented by Kosovo Albanians who see it as an insult to the KLA’s war for liberation.