Former Kosovo rebel commander convicted of 1999 murder

Salih Mustafa, a former Kosovo rebel, waits in the Kosovo Specialist Chambers court for the judges to read the verdict in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, Pool)

By The Associated Press

A former commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army was found guilty Friday of arbitrarily detaining and torturing prisoners perceived as supporters of Serbia and murdering one of them during a late 1990s war for Kosovo’s independence. It was the first war crimes conviction by a special court that was established in the Netherlands to investigate crimes from the conflict.

The commander, Salih Mustafa, was sentenced to 26 years’ imprisonment for the crimes committed at a KLA compound in Zllash, Kosovo, in April 1999. He was acquitted of one charge of mistreating detainees. He had pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Mustafa, wearing a suit and tie, stood in silence as Presiding Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia pronounced the verdicts and his sentence. He has 30 days to file notice that he plans to appeal.

Friday’s judgment comes at a time of tense relations between Serbia and Kosovo, its former province. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Thursday demanded that Serb security forces be allowed to return to Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. The West has warned the demand was unlikely to be accepted and would only stoke tensions in that part of the Balkans.

Mustafa was arrested in 2020 in Kosovo and sent to the Netherlands to stand trial at the European Union-backed Kosovo Specialist Chambers, a branch of the country’s legal system set up specifically to deal with allegations of war crimes committed as ethnic Albanian rebels united in the Kosovo Liberation Army fought a bloody conflict to break away from Serbia in 1998-99.

The head of the prosecution team welcomed the verdicts.

“With today’s verdict, the Specialist Chambers has shown that it is a court for and about victims and that there is no expiration date on accountability,” Acting Specialist Prosecutor Alex Whiting said in a statement.

The court has detained Kosovo’s former president, Hashim Thaci, and he is awaiting trial with other suspects on charges that include murder, torture and persecution. He denies all allegations.

Thaci served as a guerrilla leader during Kosovo’s war for independence before rising to political prominence in the aftermath of the conflict that killed more than 10,000 people. His trial, along with three other accused, is expected to open in March.

Judge Veldt-Foglia called Friday’s judgment a “milestone for the specialist chambers” that could lead to “further reconciliation among communities in Kosovo.”

Veldt-Foglia said the trial was focused solely on Mustafa’s individual criminal responsibility for war crimes — and stressed that the KLA and the people of Kosovo were not targeted in the case. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.

She also paid tribute to witnesses who testified in the trial, saying they did so “in a pervasive climate of fear and intimidation that persists in Kosovo to this day.”

Mustafa was commander of the KLA’s BIA guerrilla unit that had its base at the Zllash compound where the crimes were committed in April 1999. The victims were accused by KLA fighters of collaborating with Serbs or not supporting the KLA.

As well as commanding the unit involved in the crimes, Mustafa personally mistreated two detainees, the court ruled.

“He subjected one of them to a mock execution. He also beat him repeatedly all over his body,”Veldt-Foglia said.

The murder victim died of a combination of severe mistreatment, denial of medical aid and gunshot wounds. While the court could not establish who shot the victim, it ruled that the abuse and lack of medical aid “are exclusively attributable to acts and omissions of Mr. Mustafa and his BIA subordinates.”