March 06, 2007
Ex-Kosovo Leader Goes on Trial
Ethnic Albanian Faces 37 War Crimes Charges Before U.N. Court
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 6, 2007; Page A16
PARIS, March 5 -- An international war crimes prosecutor said Monday that former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj was a gangster in uniform who committed "cruel and violent crimes" during his guerrilla army's war against Serb forces in 1998-99.
Haradinaj has "blood on his hands," chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte declared at the start of the former leader's trial before a U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
An ethnic Albanian who rose from nightclub bouncer to guerrilla commander to prime minister, Haradinaj faces 37 charges of murder, rape and torture allegedly committed by his forces in a conflict in which figures from both sides have been tried for gruesome atrocities and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Haradinaj is the highest-ranking ethnic Albanian to be indicted by the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He and former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who died in his cell last year before his trial ended, were the only two serving heads of government to be indicted by the tribunal.
Kosovo Albanians have been demonstrating in the streets of the provincial capital, Pristina, for immediate independence from Serbia. U.N. officials have rejected that demand, proposing instead to give Kosovo a new legal status that could eventually lead to independence.
Historically a province of Serbia, Kosovo has been under U.N. control since a 78-day NATO air campaign in 1999 forced out the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, which had been fighting separatist guerrillas from Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority population.
Haradinaj is considered a hero by many Kosovo Albanians, who believe he was defending them against Serb atrocities.
But on Monday, with Haradinaj watching in court, Del Ponte said: "There is nothing noble or heroic about the crimes in this case. There was nothing patriotic or virtuous. They were brutal and bloody murders."
Haradinaj, 38, is standing trial along with Idriz Balaj, commander of a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) unit known as the Black Eagles, and Lahi Brahimaj, Haradinaj's uncle and close assistant during the conflict. The three are accused of waging a campaign to drive Serbs and Roma, or Gypsies, from their villages and for abuses against ethnic Albanian and Roma civilians suspected of collaborating with Serbs or failing to support the KLA.
In opening statements, prosecutors said Balaj and his forces captured three Roma men they believed were collaborating with the Serbs. According to the indictment, Balaj's men cut off the nose of one of the captives, then Balaj "cut each of the three men on their necks, arms and thighs, rubbed salt into the wounds and sewed them up."
Prosecutors allege Balaj then wound barbed wire around the men and stabbed one in the eye.
"These men, this warlord with his lieutenant and his jailer, have blood on their hands," Del Ponte told the court's three-judge panel. "These three men come before you accused of crimes -- ugly, cruel and violent crimes."
If convicted, the defendants could be sentenced to life in prison. The tribunal does not impose the death penalty.
The indictment also alleges that Haradinaj helped establish a makeshift jail at the KLA headquarters in Jablanica, where detainees were beaten and tortured, given very little food and water, and denied medical treatment. Some of the prisoners died as a result of their injuries or were executed on the orders of Haradinaj and the other accused men, the indictment charges.
During the two-year war with KLA guerrillas, Serb forces killed thousands of ethnic Albanian combatants and civilians and drove out nearly a million others before NATO intervened and pushed Serb forces out of Kosovo with an air campaign. In the years since, many members of Kosovo's Serb minority have fled retribution from Albanians.