Ex-Kosovo rebel commander found guilty of 1999 murder

Former Kosovo rebel Salih Mustafa waits for a judge to read the verdict at the Kosovo Special Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on December 16.POOL/AP

A former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army was found guilty on Friday of arbitrarily detaining and torturing prisoners seen as Serbian supporters and killing one of them during Kosovo’s war of independence in the late 1990s.

It was the first conviction for a war crime by a special court set up in the Netherlands to investigate crimes in the conflict.

Commander Salih Mustafa was sentenced to 26 years in prison for crimes committed in April 1999 at the KLA compound in Zllash, Kosovo. He was acquitted of one charge of ill-treating detainees. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Wearing a suit and tie, Mustafa remained silent as presiding judge Mapie Wert-Folia delivered the verdict and verdict. He has 30 days to give notice of his planned appeal.

Friday’s verdict comes amid tensions between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic demanded on Thursday that Serb security forces be allowed to return to Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. The West warned that the demand was unlikely to be accepted and would only increase tension in the Balkans.

Mustafa was arrested in Kosovo in 2020 and sent to the Netherlands to stand trial before the EU-backed Kosovo Specialist Chamber, a branch of the country’s legal system that deals with ethnic Albanian insurgents who fought in the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1998-99. A bloody conflict broke out from Serbia in 1999.

The head of the prosecution team welcomed the verdict.

“With today’s judgment, the Expert Chamber has shown that it is a court for victims and that there is no deadline for accountability,” acting expert prosecutor Alex Whiting said in a statement.

The court has detained former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who is awaiting trial with other suspects on charges including murder, torture and persecution. He denies all allegations.

Thaci served as a guerrilla leader during Kosovo’s War of Independence before rising to politics after a conflict that left more than 10,000 dead. The trial for him and three other defendants is expected to begin in March.

Judge Veldt-Foglia called Friday’s verdict a “landmark for the expert tribunal” that could lead to “further reconciliation among the Kosovar community”.

Veldt-Foglia said the trial focused solely on Mustafa’s personal criminal responsibility for war crimes — and stressed that the Kosovo Liberation Army and the people of Kosovo were not the targets of the case. “That’s not the case,” she said.

She also paid tribute to witnesses who testified at the trial, saying they had testified “in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that still prevails in Kosovo.”

Mustafa was the commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army’s BIA partisan unit, which was based at the Zllash compound where the April 1999 crimes were committed. KLA fighters accused victims of colluding with Serbs or not supporting KLA.

The court ruled that Mustafa not only commanded the units involved but also personally abused the two detainees.

“He performed a mock execution on one of them. He also repeatedly beat him all over the body,” Veldt-Foglia said.

Murder victims died of severe abuse, denial of medical attention and gunshot wounds. While the court could not determine who shot the victim, it ruled that the abuse and lack of medical attention were “attributable solely to the actions and omissions of Mr. Mustafa and his BIA subordinates.”

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