The Kosovo Specialist Chambers operates under Kosovo law but is based in the Netherlands to shield witnesses from intimidation – Copyright AFP/File Jonathan NACKSTRAND
A war crimes court in The Hague jailed two Kosovo former separatist fighters to four-and-a-half years on Wednesday for intimidating witnesses, in its first verdict over Kosovo’s 1990s independence war from Serbia.
Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj, the head and the deputy head of a group of veterans from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), were found guilty of revealing the details of hundreds of witnesses after receiving classified files from the court.
The two men, who were arrested in September 2022, called witnesses “traitors, spies and collaborators” in a bid to scare them off testifying to the Netherlands-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers, the court found.
“This judgment clearly paints those acts for what they are: criminal and not patriotic,” presiding judge Charles Smith said as he handed down the sentences at the high-security court.
“The message of the accused to these witnesses was: now that everyone knows who you are, no one can protect you.”
The time the men have already served in detention since their arrest will be deducted from the sentence, Smith said. They were also fined 100 euros each.
Gucati and Haradinaj, who had denied the charges, listened to the judgment through headphones and stood to be sentenced.
They were found guilty on five counts including intimidating witnesses and violating the secrecy of the court and cleared of one charge of “retaliation”.
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers operates under Kosovo law but is based in the Netherlands to shield witnesses from intimidation in Kosovo, where former KLA commanders have long dominated political life.
The court has issued war crimes charges against several senior members of the KLA, an ethnic Albanian guerrilla group that waged a 1998-99 independence struggle against Serbia.
They include Kosovo’s former president Hashim Thaci, who resigned after being indicted.
– ‘Traitors, spies, collaborators’ –
Gucati and Haradinaj were arrested by heavily armed EU police in a raid on the veterans’ headquarters Pristina in September 2020 and sent to The Hague for trial.
The veterans’ association said it had received anonymous packages of the court’s confidential files including information about protected witnesses and upcoming indictments.
Judges said Gucati and Haradinaj received three batches of classified information from the court and revealed them during three press conferences between September 7 and 25, 2020.
They also handed out the information to journalists and gave interviews, the judges said.
“These acts took place in a climate of witness intimidation,” judge Smith said.
“The accused referred to witnesses and potential witnesses using derogatory and threatening language, calling them traitors, spies, collaborators.”
The court is investigating claims that the Kosovo rebels waged a campaign of revenge attacks on Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanian rivals during and after the war.
Thaci — the rebels’ former political chief — was accused by prosecutors of being “criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders”.
He pleaded not guilty when he appeared in court in November 2020.
Another former commander, Salih Mustafa, compared the court to Nazi Germany’s Gestapo secret police when he appeared in the dock in September last year.
Many KLA veterans fiercely oppose the tribunal’s mandate, defending their “just” liberation war against Belgrade’s oppression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population.
The conflict left 13,000 people dead, mainly ethnic Albanians, and saw several top Serbian politicians and generals later jailed for war crimes.
Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have remained high.
Serbia as well as its powerful allies China and Russia still do not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 independence declaration, which has been recognised by more than 100 countries.