Former Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi waged a bloody campaign against his political opponents during the 1998-99 war of independence, resulting in more than 100 murders, the prosecution said Monday at the opening of its war crimes trial.

He and three other prominent members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) have all pleaded not guilty to the war crimes and crimes against humanity they are charged with before a special court in The Hague.

Demonstrators gathered in the Dutch city in support of Mr. Thaçi, detained in The Hague since his resignation in 2020. On Sunday, there were already thousands of them showing their support in the streets of Pristina.

Still regarded in Kosovo as guerrilla heroes, Mr Thaçi and his co-defendants openly imposed a brutal reign of imprisonment, torture and murder to tighten their grip on power during and after the war, according to the report. charge.

“Why did they do this? The evidence will show it was to gain power,” prosecutor Alex Whiting told the EU-funded Kosovo Special Court (KSC).

“We intend to prove hundreds of detentions across Kosovo, generally in conditions of terrible abuse, and over 100 murders,” Whiting said.

The war in Kosovo left 13,000 dead, mostly Albanian Kosovars. It ended when a campaign of NATO air strikes in the spring of 1999 forced the Serbian forces to withdraw.

Hashim Thaçi, 54, dressed in a gray suit and blue tie, again pleaded not guilty, as in his first court appearance in 2020.

“I am absolutely not guilty,” he said.

His co-accused, former KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi, one of Mr. Thaçi’s closest political allies, Kadri Veseli, and one of the leading figures of the KLA, Rexhep Selimi, all also proclaimed their innocence.

Dubbed the “George Washington of Kosovo” by then US Vice President Joe Biden, Hashim Thaçi was the first prime minister and president of the fledgling nation, which declared independence in 2008.

But allegations of crimes committed during and after the war stick with him, as do accusations of corruption, in a country where KLA commanders have retained a key role in public life.

“These four men were without a doubt the main leaders of the KLA and they were celebrated and honored for that,” said Alex Whiting. “But there was a darker side to their leadership,” he added.

They had a “clear and explicit policy to target collaborators and those they viewed as traitors”, he continued.

Besides the ethnic Serbs and Roma who lost their lives, most of the victims were fellow Kosovo Albanians.

“In their zeal to target and eliminate people whom they saw as opponents”, the defendants “also persecuted their own”, Mr Whiting said.

The KLA’s methods were “not a secret at all”. His message that political opponents posed an existential threat to the KLA and Kosovo was repeatedly hammered home, he said.

The defendants were also acting out of “fear”, fearing that their independence cause could lose the conflict, and enraged by a “hatred” of the enemy, the prosecutor said.

They face six counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes, including murder, torture, enforced disappearances, persecution and cruel treatment.

Created in 2015, the KSC is a Kosovar law body, highly secure and composed of international judges to protect witnesses.

Nevertheless, there is today a “climate of intimidation of witnesses” around this trial, some facing threats, according to the prosecution.

International tensions remain over Kosovo, recognized by many Western countries but not by Belgrade and Moscow.

03/04/2023 19:28:31 – The Hague (AFP) – © 2023 AFP