Trial against the KLA leaders: Will witnesses receive adequate protection this time?

Suđenje liderima OVK
Source: Kosovo Online

At the trial of the four former KLA leaders Hashim Thaci, Kadri Veseli, Jakup Krasniqi, and Rexhep Selimi before the Specialized Chambers in The Hague, the Prosecution announced the testimony of more than 300 witnesses, and one of the key issues for the success of this process is precisely their safety. Earlier court trials, in which the subject was war crimes committed by the KLA and their leaders, were accompanied by inadequate witness protection, and the most drastic example was the trial against Ramush Haradinaj.

In 2012, Haradinaj was acquitted in a second-instance verdict before the Hague Tribunal, but during the process, several witnesses died under strange circumstances or retracted their statements.

The Special Prosecutor's Office is aware of this, so Prosecutor, Alex Whiting, pointed out at the beginning of the trial that one of the challenges in the proceedings against the four KLA commanders was the atmosphere of witness intimidation in Kosovo.

"It is real and very widespread and that is one of the reasons why this court is in The Hague and why in its verdicts and decisions the court has stated that this intimidation has continued to this day," Whiting said.

He also stated that witnesses needed courage.

"We will see that sometimes the witnesses who are called to testify will not want to tell this court what they know, because of the fear of what will happen to them or their families, including that someone will mark them as collaborators or traitors because they cooperate with this institution," he said.

Former war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic points out for Kosovo Online that the protection of witnesses in the trial against former KLA leaders is crucial, but also very specific, because only through witnesses can procedurally valid evidence be obtained, i.e. evidence based on which a decision can be made, exonerating or condemning.

"We also had that trouble. When I was in America as a prosecutor, at the invitation of their Ministry of Justice, I noticed that Albanians had been constantly mentioned in stories about the mafia. The Albanian mafia took on the role of the Italian mafia - when they find out about any communication between those units of theirs and the prosecution, they immediately look for him, give him money, and warn him. If they see that he continues to communicate with us, they threaten to liquidate him, or a member of his family. And in the end, liquidation follows," Vukcevic says.

He adds that the delicate protection of witnesses is best shown by the process that was conducted specifically against Ramush Haradinaj in The Hague, or the work on gathering information about the "Yellow House". Vukcevic points out that, while Carla del Ponte was the chief prosecutor, the head of the Investigative Department in The Hague requested the support of the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor's Office in investigating Haradinaj's crimes and hearing witnesses.

"He said that they were following the trail of Hardinaj's crimes, they wanted to question the witnesses, to see if there was anything there that would be useful to them... We brought people to testify, but the protection of witnesses appeared again as a problem. One witness was killed in Podgorica, in the settlement Masline; he was run over by a jeep. The other witness fled to Germany, and we informed the Germans about it, but he was found in Berlin, hanged in a park, under suspicion of having committed suicide. It is such a delicate issue," Vukcevic notes.

However, he says that now the Specialized Prosecutor's Office and the court panels must protect the witnesses, because without that they will not be able to complete the process.

"I believe that the witnesses are now safe. They should not take it lightly. Those who founded the court and the prosecution will not mess around with it," Vukcevic said, but he also added that threats to witnesses would not surprise him, although, he says, experience tells him that "they threaten only when they are told, never on their own initiative".

When it comes to the "Yellow House", which is often mentioned, he points out that it was not discovered by Dick Marty, but by the Serbian prosecution.

Lawyer Milan Antonijevic notes the difference between the trial of KLA leaders and other proceedings before the Hague Tribunal, stating that the safety of witnesses, which, he says, the Special Court pays attention to, is guaranteed in a different way.

He also points out that in the proceedings against Thaci and others, there is far less information about the witnesses.

"For everyone who wants to see international justice, it is clear that the safety of witnesses is the key and that the very success of the proceedings that are currently being conducted against the KLA leader will be measured by that," Antonijevic told Kosovo Online.

He states that he does not know precisely what the current security assessment is, for which the Kosovo institutions and the international community are responsible.

"The international community must not allow any incident and must clearly react to every threat directed at witnesses and their families, analyze if there are any withdrawals from testifying and what are the reasons for that," Antonijevic said.

He says that it is necessary for everyone to see "international justice", which, above all, the victims of war crimes and conflicts deserve.

"The whole region deserves to see justice, all the victims, and the families of those who, even at this moment, are missing, from both the Serbian and Albanian communities, and for which the KLA members are being held as perpetrators," Antonijevic concluded.

That the issue of witness protection of KLA crimes in Kosovo is really problematic is also shown by the fact that none of the Kosovo analysts who were asked by Kosovo Online to answer the question of whether witnesses were safe in Kosovo - did not want to comment on the topic.