Former Kosovo separatist commander appears in court

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A former commander of separatist fighters in Kosovo’s 1998-1999 war appeared at a special court in the Netherlands on Monday to face charges that he was involved in the torture of detainees and the murder of one prisoner held at a compound in Kosovo during the conflict.

Salih Mustafa was arrested Thursday and transferred to the Netherlands to stand trial. He is the first suspect to appear in court at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers.

He sat in the courtroom wearing a suit and tie and a face mask, which he removed as he stood and confirmed his name and other personal details, identifying himself as an economist and adviser to the Kosovo defense ministry.

He listened in silence as a court officer read out the four charges against him, and Presiding Judge Nicolas Guillou read him his rights. Mustafa didn't enter pleas to the charges during the 35-minute hearing. He has 30 days to enter pleas.

The Kosovo Liberation Army was made up of ethnic Albanian rebels who fought for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Mustafa oversaw fighters in the Llapi area, 35 kilometers (20 miles) north of the capital, Pristina.

Mustafa is charged with the war crimes of arbitrary detention, cruel treatment, the torture of at least six people and the murder of one person at a detention compound in Zllash, Kosovo, in April 1999. The victims were accused by KLA fighters of collaborating with Serbs or not supporting the KLA, according to the indictment.

In one incident alleged in the indictment, Mustafa interrogated a detainee “about his knowledge of the identities of thieves and spies, and beat him with a baseball bat all over his body, causing him severe mental harm and severe physical injuries.”

He is charged in the indictment under different modes of criminal liability, including command responsibility and as a member of a joint criminal enterprise.

The court and an associated Special Prosecutor’s Office were established five years ago following a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, a human rights body, that included allegations that KLA fighters trafficked human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and fellow ethnic Albanians. The court is mandated to investigate and prosecute allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo, or linked to the Kosovo conflict, from 1998-2000.

Two leaders of the Kosovar war veterans’ association, Hysni Gucati and Nasim Haradinaj, were arrested last week and transferred to The Hague accused of “offences against the administration of justice, namely intimidation of witnesses, retaliation and violation of secrecy of proceedings,” the court said. They are likely to make their first appearances before the court in coming days.

Prosecutors in The Hague also have isssued an indictment against Kosovar President Hashim Thaci, former parliamentary speaker Kadri Veseli, and others for crimes that include murder, enforced disappearances, persecution and torture. A pre-trial judge has yet to confirm those indictments. Both men have denied committing any war crimes.

The 1998-1999 war for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia left more than 10,000 people dead — most of them ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. More than 1,600 people remain unaccounted for. The fighting ended after a 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbian troops.

Kosovo, which is dominated by ethnic Albanians, declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move recognized by many Western nations but not Serbia or its allies Russia and China.