Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Controversial Kosovar Murdered

Drive-by shooting linked to ambitious ex-commander's testimony at recent trial of former KLA fighters.
By Naser Miftari

The murder of former ethnic Albanian leader Tahir Zemaj on Saturday is being linked to his testimony at the recent controversial trial of five former Kosovo Liberation Army members.

Kosovo police are still investigating the killings of the 53-year-old ex-Yugoslav army colonel, his son Enis and nephew Hasan, who lost their lives in a drive-by shooting in Peja (Pec). A possible eyewitness has been questioned, but officers appear to be no closer to identifying the assassins.

Speculation is growing that Zemaj's death may be linked to his recent appearance as a prosecution witness at the trials of five ex-KLA fighters known as the Dukagjini Group.

Some analysts believe that Zemaj may have died because he knew too much about the activities of former KLA fighters - and could have been called to give testimony at a future war crimes trial at The Hague - but there's little evidence to support this view.

The Dukagjini Group - including Daut Haradinaj, brother of former KLA commander and current Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, leader Ramush - were each sentenced to between three and 15 years imprisonment on December 17. They were found guilty of the unlawful detention and murder of four men belonging to the rival Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo, FARK, in June 1999.

During the 1998-99 conflict, Zemaj was the second-highest ranking officer in FARK, established by Bujar Bukoshi, then-prime minister in exile. It is alleged that Zemaj left the country in summer 1998 following threats from the general staff of the rival KLA, although others maintain that he retreated to save the civilian population from a Serb offensive in summer 1998. Haradinaj and Zemaj parted company over this incident, which the former saw as a "betrayal".

Since his return to the protectorate in 2001, Zemaj had spoken openly of his ambition to be the head of the Kosovo Protection Corps, KPC - a civil emergency force established by the international community and dominated by former KLA members - and appoint former FARK officers to its ranks.

A leading American think-tank, USIP, proposed that the KPC be governed by a body to be called the Superior Council for National Security, in which, Kosovo Albanian political circles subsequently speculated, Zemaj would play a leading role.

In the meantime, Zemaj is believed to have served President Ibrahim Rugova as a military adviser - although the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, party had long denied this.

But during a commemorative service held in Rugova's office on January 8, the president acknowledged that he had intended to appoint Zemaj as an official defence adviser, and declared a Mourning Day for the slain FARK leader.

All political parties have condemned the killing of Zemaj. Haradinaj and his former KLA commander and now Democratic Party of Kosovo leader Hashim Thaci said it had damaged Kosovo's international reputation.

The American Office in Pristina, which carries out a function similar to that of an embassy, has hinted that the killing might have been connected to Zemaj's testimony against the Dukagjini Group. "It is especially disturbing that these killings take place after a trial during which Zemaj had testified," read the statement signed by Alec Mally, acting head of the office.

"This killing, at such a point in time, surely does not help and can intimidate others who may be willing to collaborate with the authorities who are working to establish law and order in the streets of Kosovo."

A theory proposed by international media that the murders were a warning to other Kosovars thinking of testifying at The Hague appears to have little credibility.

Two days after the killing, the Swiss newspaper Neue Zuricher Zeitung wrote, "Since the end of the war in Kosovo, Belgrade has insisted that Albanian fighters should also be charged for war crimes".

Some people believe that Zemaj had already agreed to give evidence about those events. But an IWPR source at the tribunal denied this, saying that Hague representatives had not approached Zemaj, although "he was an interesting figure and might have been a potential witness".

Calling on the media to not jump to conclusions, Haradinaj has denied that he had a motive for the killings, and has expressed his condolences to the murder victims' families. He claims that the shooting may have been carried out by the secret services - but did not specify of which government.

The AAK leader dismissed allegations that the deaths were a result of Zemaj's appearance at the trial of his brother. "He gave a strong message in Daut's favour by dismissing claims that there was conflict between [myself and Zemaj]. My brother's defence lawyers used his testimony in their strategy," Haradinaj said.

He also denied that the killings had anything to do with a series of articles criticising Zemaj that appeared in sections of the Kosovo media. The 24 Hours newspaper, believed to be close to the AAK, published a long feature, which branded the ex-FARK commander as a spy, a collaborator and a mafioso.

"The media is full of such articles, but I think that a writer's opinion is not a license to kill," said Haradinaj.

Naser Miftari is an editor at the Pristina daily Koha Ditore