Little-known in his home country before his arrest nearly two years ago, former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA member Pjeter Shala will appear at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague on Tuesday and Wednesday for the opening statements in his trial.
Shala, whose nom de guerre was Komandant Ujku (Commander Wolf), is the second KLA ex-guerrilla to go on trial for wartime crimes at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers.
He is charged with arbitrary detention, cruel treatment, torture and murder in the northern Albania town of Kukes, at a metal factory which indictment claims was used by the KLA as a detention centre.
“The alleged crimes with which Mr Shala is charged took place between approximately 17 May 1999 and 5 June 1999 against persons detained at the Kukes Metal Factory (Albania) allegedly used by the Kosovo Liberation Army,” the Kosovo Specialist Chambers said in a statement.
While the KLA was fighting the Yugoslav Army and Serbian police forces across the border in Kosovo, the guerrillas used the factory in the Albanian city of Kukes for a variety of military purposes including the storage of equipment and supplies, the enlistment of volunteers, and as “a preparation and transit point for KLA members moving to and from forward positions”, according to the indictment.
“The Kukes Metal Factory also served as a site for the detention and interrogation of persons suspected of having collaborated with the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] and Serbia or of failing to support the KLA,” the indictment claims.
The victims were civilians who were not participating in the armed conflict in Kosovo at the time, it adds.
It accuses Shala of not only physically participating in “physically and psychologically assaulting” detainees, but also of not doing anything to stop any torture.
“The detainees at the Kukes Metal Factory were beaten on an almost daily basis. Pjeter Shala took no measures to prevent or curtail the violence, or to otherwise assist or ensure the humane treatment of the detainees,” the indictment says.
The indictment names two other KLA ex-fighters, Sabit Geci and Xhemshit Krasniqi, as members of a “joint criminal enterprise” along with Shala.
It alleges that between approximately May 17, 1999 and June 1999, Shala and other KLA members including Geci and Krasniqi detained several people “without due process of law” at the Kukes Metal Factory.
“Pjeter Shala was aware of the factual circumstances of the armed conflict and knew that the victims were persons taking no active part in hostilities,” the indictment says.
Shala has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Defence alleges rights violations
Pjeter Shala at a pre-trial court appearance in The Hague in April 2022. Photo: Kosovo Specialist Chambers/Screenshot
In the run-up to the start of the trial, Shala’s defence has claimed that his rights have been violated during questioning and the admission of evidence.
On February 9 this year, the defence appealed against a trial panel decision that admitted into evidence transcripts of interviews that Shala gave to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY in 2005 and 2007 and to the Belgian Federal Judicial Police in 2016 and 2019 and the Kosovo Specialist Prosecution the same year.
The defence claimed in its appeal that the trial panel has mistakenly concluded that Shala was “sufficiently informed of the nature and cause of the suspicions against him as well as of his right to have access to a lawyer” at each interview.
It also argued that the trial panel made a mistake by assessing that Shala had given “a well-informed and unequivocal waiver of his right to have access to a lawyer” at the interviews.
According to the defence, by admitting these interviews as evidence, Shala’s right to a fair trial is being violated, claiming Shala was not given a lawyer as requested by law during the interviews, nor was he made aware of the suspicions against him.
Despite the defence’s claims, on February 8, the judges extended Shala’s detention on the grounds that he could obstruct the proceedings and commit further crimes. Fear of witness-tampering remains a major concern for the court after intimidation marred previous KLA-related cases in The Hague.
In October last year, the defence also complained that it received a considerable amount of the evidence from the prosecution very late, including the addition of a new witness.
“They are forcing us to work as if we are walking on quicksand that slips all the time. We work according to the documents that are served to us and when we receive them late it is difficult to analyse and translate them,” the defence told the court, referring to 500 documents that it said were submitted late by the prosecution.
So far the court has not accepted the defence’s claims that Shala’s rights have been infringed, however.
The trial is expected to take some time, considering that the first-instance proceedings in the first war crimes trial at the court – the case against former KLA commander Salih Mustafa – lasted more than a year. Mustafa was sentenced to 26 years in prison for war crimes including arbitrary detention, torture and murder but can appeal against the verdict.
A life away from the headlines
A banner supporting Kosovo’s ex-president Hashim Thaci and other indicted former KLA members on the main square in Pristina, November 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/VALDRIN XHEMAJ.
Unlike the former KLA members who have already been sentenced for obstruction of justice by the Specialist Chambers (former war veterans’ organisation leaders Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj) or are awaiting trial on war crimes charges (former President Hashim Thaci and parliament speaker Kadri Veseli), Shala had kept himself out of the public eye for a long time before he was arrested in Belgium in 2021.
When he was transferred to detention in The Hague, even people from his home village back in Kosovo told BIRN that they did not know much about him apart for that he was an only child and that his parents are now dead.
The Kosovo war was not Shala’s first as he had also been a volunteer fighter on the Croatian side in that country’s war for independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Afterwards, Shala had moved to Albania, from where he and another 30 men joined KLA in the Kosovo war.
Eventually Shala was stationed in the village of Dujake and he became a local military leader in this part of western Kosovo, where KLA fighters were controlled by Ramush Haradinaj, who later became prime minister in the post-war era.
In June 1998, Shala told his comrades in Dujake that he had been appointed head of the local military police by KLA commander Rexhep Selimi.
Selimi is also now in custody in The Hague, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity alongside Thaci, Veseli and another other ex-guerrilla turned politician, Jakup Krasniqi. Like Shala, they have all pleaded not guilty. Their trial is set to start at the beginning of April.
The Specialist Chambers are part of Kosovo’s judicial system but are located in the Netherlands and staffed by internationals.
They were set up in 2015 by the Kosovo parliament, acting under pressure from the country’s Western allies, who believe Kosovo’s own justice system is not robust enough to try KLA cases and protect witnesses from intimidation, after previous cases at the ICTY were marred by witness-tampering.
The so-called ‘Special Court’ is highly unpopular in Kosovo, where it is seen as unfairly targeting Kosovo Albanian freedom fighters rather than the Serbian perpetrators of the majority of the war crimes that were committed in 1998-99.
However, apart from factual reports about pre-trial hearings in Shala’s case, there has not been major media interest in the proceedings against him so far in Kosovo as he is a lesser-known figure than others who have been charged. Little has been written about Shala in the Serbian media either since his arrest and transfer to The Hague.