Hague war crimes court jails Kosovans for intimidating witnesses

Two prominent members of Kosovo Liberation Army convicted of intimidating witnesses and breaching secrecy of court

File photo: The International Criminal Court, or ICC, is seen in The Hague, Netherlands, November 7, 2019. AP
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Two former Kosovan separatist fighters were jailed on Tuesday for four and a half years for intimidating witnesses, in an EU-funded court's first verdict over Kosovo's 1990s independence conflict from Serbia.

The head and deputy head of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj, were found guilty of revealing the names of hundreds of witnesses.

The two men publicised leaked classified documents, calling witnesses "traitors, spies and collaborators", the court found.

"The message of the accused to these witnesses was: now that everyone knows who you are, no one can protect you," presiding judge Charles Smith said as he handed down the sentences at the high-security court.

"This judgment clearly paints those acts for what they are: criminal and not patriotic."

The time they have already spent in detention since their arrest in Pristina in September 2020 will be deducted from the sentence. They were also fined €100 each.

The judgment is the first by the EU-funded Kosovo Specialist Chambers since it was set up in 2016.

The court operates under Kosovan law but is based in the Netherlands to protect witnesses from intimidation in Kosovo, where former KLA commanders have long dominated political life.

It has issued war crimes charges against senior members of the KLA — an ethnic Albanian guerrilla group that waged a 1998-1999 independence struggle against Serbia — including former president Hashim Thaci.

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 breaching the secrecy of the court, and cleared of one charge of "retaliation".

Gucati and Haradinaj were arrested by heavily armed EU police in a raid on the veterans' headquarters in Pristina after they said they had received anonymous packages of the court's confidential files.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. AP

Judges said the pair revealed details including names of "hundreds" of witnesses during three media briefings 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," Mr Smith said.

"The accused referred to witnesses and potential witnesses using derogatory and threatening language, calling them traitors, spies, collaborators."

Two witnesses were relocated and others were given "emergency risk planning" as a result of their actions, the judge said.

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 resigned after being indicted and pleaded not guilty when he appeared in court in November 2020.

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 killed 13,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians, and had top Serbian politicians and generals later jailed for war crimes.

Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have remained high.

Serbia, and its powerful allies China and Russia, still do not recognise Kosovo's 2008 independence declaration, which has been recognised by more than 100 countries.

Updated: May 18, 2022, 10:20 PM