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Kosovo court sentences former rebel leader for war crimes

Kosovo court judges convicted a former KLA Liberation Army (KLA) commander who ran a torture prison during the 1998-1999 independence conflict with Serbia.

In its first war crimes verdict, the court on Friday sentenced Salih Mustafa to 26 years in prison for war crimes, including murder and torture at a detention center where the prisoners, mostly Kosovar Albanians who were political opponents of the KLA , they were beaten. and tortured daily.

Chief Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia said the verdict was a “landmark” for the court, which was established in 2015, and “constitutes the first war crimes trial of this court.”

“The panel sentences you to a single sentence of 26 years in prison,” he told Mustafa, who wore a gray suit and blue tie and remained impassive throughout the verdict.

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The judges found that Mustafa personally participated in the beating and torture of at least two prisoners and allowed his subordinates to mistreat another so severely that the prisoner later died.

Mustafa, 50, denied the charges and his lawyers accused prosecution witnesses of fabricating their stories. Both parties have 30 days to appeal the decision.

international court

The Kosovo Specialized Chambers, a Kosovo court based in the Netherlands and made up of international judges and lawyers, was created to handle cases under Kosovo law against ex-KLA fighters.

The tribunal is separate from the United Nations tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was also located in The Hague, where it tried and convicted Serb officials for war crimes committed in the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

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Presiding Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia (top row, C) prepares to read the verdict in the case of Salih Mustafa, a former commander of a BIA guerrilla unit operating within the Kosovo Liberation Army's Llap operational zone (ELK), waits in the court of the Kosovo Specialized Chamber for the judges to read the verdict, in The Hague, on December 16, 2022. - A Kosovo special court in The Hague sentenced former rebel commander Salih Mustafa on 16 December 2022 for murder and torture and imprisoned him for 26 years in his first war crimes verdict.  (Photo by Peter Dejong / POOL / AFP) / Netherlands OUT
Presiding Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia, top row – center, convicted former rebel commander Salih Mustafa of murder and torture and jailed him for 26 years in his first war crimes verdict. [Peter Dejong/AFP]

More than 13,000 people are believed to have been killed during the 1998-1999 uprising in Kosovo when it was still part of Serbia under then-President Slobodan Milosevic.

The fighting ended after NATO airstrikes against Serb forces and Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, although Belgrade does not recognize its independence.

The verdict came at a sensitive time, as ethnic tensions have flared anew in Kosovo nearly a quarter of a century after the war, with attackers exchanging fire with police over the weekend.

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‘Burned, electrocuted, stabbed’

The judges found that Mustafa, who was arrested in 2020 while working as an adviser in the Kosovo Defense Ministry, led an KLA unit in the Zllash region east of Pristina during the war.

His group kept at least six people, who were accused of collaborating with the Serbs, “in barns suitable for animals, in deplorable conditions with cattle droppings thrown around,” Veldt-Foglia said.

Prisoners were forced to sleep in puddles, denied food for two or three days in a row, and when they asked for water, KLA soldiers “urinated on them and said ‘there’s water here.’”

“The detainees were beaten, beaten with baseball bats, iron and rubber batons, burned, electrocuted, stabbed, kicked, punched, and slapped,” the judge said.

Mustafa personally interrogated two detainees, subjecting one to a mock execution and beating him “all over the body” and also stood by as his soldiers mistreated other prisoners.

One victim was left in a “near death” state and denied medical attention.

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He was later found dead, with judges saying mistreatment and failure to help contributed to his death, while he also had gunshot wounds that could have been inflicted by KLA rebels or advancing Serb troops.

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But Mustafa’s actions “effectively amounted to a decision to kill the murder victim, as he was denied any chance of survival at that point,” the judge said.

‘Climate of fear and intimidation’

The judge said she hoped the ruling would “promote reconciliation” in Kosovo.

But he noted there was a “climate of fear and intimidation” surrounding the trial, as the court jailed two KLA veterans last year for intimidating witnesses.

Kosovo reluctantly passed a law to allow the creation of the court after a 2010 Council of Europe report on alleged atrocities committed by KLA forces.

These went unpunished, even when several Serbs were convicted by other courts for the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

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