Appeals Court Upholds KLA Judgments

Judges said prosecutors failed to prove guilt of two former KLA men, but confirmed conviction of a third.

Appeals Court Upholds KLA Judgments

Judges said prosecutors failed to prove guilt of two former KLA men, but confirmed conviction of a third.

Saturday, 29 September, 2007
Kosovo Albanians expressed relief after the Hague appeals court this week confirmed the acquittals of two former guerrillas, although a third defendant had his 13-year sentence upheld by the tribunal.



Fatmir Limaj, Isak Musliu and Haradin Bala were the first three Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, members ever to face trial in The Hague for war crimes, including unlawfully holding, torturing and murdering prisoners at the Lapusnik prison camp ten years ago.



In their judgment, delivered on September 27, the judges dismissed all prosecution and defence appeals. They said prosecutors had failed to prove the guilt of former KLA commanders Limaj and Musliu, but confirmed Bala’s conviction and 13-year sentence.



“This chapter is for me and my family definitely closed and the way is open for new victories,” wrote Limaj, who is a popular figure in Kosovo, on his website in what appeared to be a hint that he might run for political office in future.



“Eight years after our victory, we are still not really free,” he wrote, promising to campaign for other KLA figures facing trial on war crimes charges.



“I will… continue my work without pause for the freedom of any citizen of my country that might lose his freedom and his rights. The decision of today will give me more strength and responsibility to continue serving my country and my people.”



The trial chamber had found that while there was enough evidence to convict Bala, the prosecution had failed to provide sufficient evidence for the conviction of Limaj and Musliu, who were not in court to hear the judgment. It did, however, say there was a “strong possibility” that Limaj had in fact been present at the KLA prison camp.



The appeals chamber confirmed its judgment, stating, “The trial chamber reasonably found that Fatmir Limaj does not incur criminal responsibility for any of the offences charged in the indictment.”



Nora Jashaari of Kosovo TV told IWPR that the appeal ruling had not been so keenly anticipated as the original case. “People already knew it was going to be that decision,” she said.



As for Musliu, trial judges found in 2005 that there was “little evidence to identify… [him] as having any kind of involvement in the prison camp”.



A stiff, stone-faced Bala appeared in court on September 27. Flanked by two guards, he was dressed in a crisply pressed suit and tie. He remained calm as the judge, who called his submissions “without merit”, rejected point-by-point all five grounds of his appeal.



Bala served as a guard at the KLA camp, and, according to judges, was convicted for his personal role in the “maintenance and enforcement of inhumane conditions”. The former foot soldier was charged with aiding in the torture of one prisoner and participating in the murder of nine others who were taken to nearby mountains and killed.



Bala’s appeal had argued that witnesses wrongly identified him as a guard at the prison camp, that the court had wrongly ruled that he was “present and directly involved in” the murders of nine prisoners, erroneously rejected his alibi and wrongly found two of the prosecution’s witnesses credible.



Bala made no reaction as the judges read out their ruling, except to take a few sips of water.



Kosovans were opposed to the decision to uphold Bala’s sentence.



“Bala is considered a scapegoat because somebody had to be sentenced,” said one journalist in Kosovo, who asked not to be named. “Everyone expected him to be released. They don’t think that he was a person who could commit the crimes mentioned.”



The prosecution had appealed Bala’s 13-year sentence, deeming it “inadequate”. They wanted a heftier sentence, arguing that 13 years “did not reflect the gravity of the crimes”.



The Office of the Prosecutor declined to comment on the appeals judgments.



The case of the three former KLA members has remained controversial, because it highlighted the difficulty of protecting witnesses prepared to testify in such trials. Observers say many potential witnesses have chosen to remain silent rather than risk their lives and their families’ lives by speaking out.



Since 2003, despite 61 investigations handled by international authorities and related to war crimes in Kosovo, only seven suspects have been convicted.



Sonia Nezamzadeh is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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