Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ramush Haradinaj, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
A protected witness testifying in the partial retrial of ex-Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, commander Ramush Haradinaj this week described being beaten and threatened by members of the force during the conflict in the late Nineties.
The Kosovo Albanian witness, identified only by the number 3, also testified in the original proceedings against Haradinaj and his two co-defendants, fellow KLA members Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj.
In 2008, Haradinaj – who briefly served as Kosovo’s prime minister – was acquitted of all 37 counts against him, which included the murder and torture of Serb civilians as well as of suspected Albanian and Roma collaborators during the war in Kosovo.
Balaj was also acquitted at that time, while Brahimaj was found guilty of cruel treatment and torture and sentenced to six years in prison.
Prosecutors appealed against the acquittals, claiming that the trial had been “infected” by witness intimidation. As a result of this, they said, they were unable to secure the testimony of two key witnesses. One of them, Shefqet Kabashi, was convicted of contempt for refusing to testify.
In their July 2010 judgement on the original case, appeals judges found that trial judges had “failed to appreciate the gravity of the threat of witness intimidation posed to the trial’s integrity” and placed too much emphasis “on ensuring that the prosecution took no more than its pre-allotted time to present its case… irrespective of the possibility of securing potentially important testimony”.
The appeals judges ruled that Haradinaj and Balaj should be retried on six counts of murder, cruel treatment and torture, and Brahimaj retried on four of those counts.
All of the charges in the current retrial concern the KLA headquarters in Jablanica, which prosecutors say was used to beat, torture and imprison those who were or perceived to be Serbian collaborators, regardless of their ethnicity.
Witness 3 testified this week that co-defendant Lahi Brahimaj took him to the Jablanica compound in July 1998, on the suspicion that he was collaborating with Serb forces, though this was only revealed later. The witness strenuously denied these accusations.
The witness said that he was detained with two other men who were already “in very bad condition”. He identified one of the men as his former schoolteacher Skender Kuqi, who was allegedly later killed in KLA custody.
Almost immediately on entering the room, the witness said he was beaten with baseball bats, but because the blows came from behind, he could not see the perpetrators. He said he lost consciousness after a few minutes, and when he came to, his legs were “trembling”.
“I wanted to stand up but my legs couldn’t hold me,” the witness said. “I wanted to urinate but couldn’t stand on my feet.”
He said that someone came to take him outside to urinate, but he was told that if he needed to go again, he would have to do so in his pants.
On his third day at the compound, the witness said, “Lahi [Brahimaj] came and took me to his room.
“When I went in, there were two women and another person and Lahi started asking me questions. He told the other girls, ‘Do you want to practice on him?’ and they started beating me with a sort of baton.”
At a certain point, the witness said that Brahimaj handed him a gun.
“He said, ‘Take this and kill yourself because I don’t want to smear myself with your blood.’”
When the other man present in the room indicated that they would be coming back to see him again, the witness decided to escape, which he later did through a window in the room where he was being detained.
Some days later, the witness said that Brahimaj found him, took him away at gunpoint and put him in the boot of his car. At one point, the witness said, Brahimaj opened the boot, pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger – but only smoke came out.
“During this incident when you were detained in the boot of the car, what were you thinking was going to happen to you?” asked prosecuting lawyer Paul Rogers.
“I was thinking that they were going to take me to some secret place to kill me,” the witness said.
The witness said that Brahimaj eventually took him to the KLA headquarters in Glojane where he was beaten by an unidentified blond man.
Two young men later entered the room and asked the witness what he had done.
“I said ‘I don’t know,’” he told the court. “They left the room, and the blond guy wanted to come back to beat me again but they stopped him doing that.”
The witness said that the two young men took him to see the “commander”, who the witness understood to be Ramush Haradinaj.
The commander gave the witness bread and asked him if he had a place to spend the night.
“He took me to large room and advised me not to sleep near the window” because of shelling by Serbian forces, the witness said. The commander told him he could return to his family the following day, but his relatives came and fetched later the same evening.
Before the witness left, the commander told him to “forget what happened”.
During cross-examination, Brahimaj’s defence accused the witness of “exaggerating” his ordeal and making “false allegations” against the defendant.
“I have not made any false statements and I’m telling the truth of everything that happened to me,” the witness said. “My body suffers to this day from what happened at the time.”
Haradinaj’s lawyers asked the witness several questions about his experience with the “commander” he believed to be Haradinaj.
“[Your] position is that after your encounter with the man you believe to be Ramush Haradinaj, you never had any trouble again with Lahi Brahimaj?” asked Ben Emmerson, Haradinaj’s defence lawyer.
The witness responded that this was correct.
“After your encounter with Mr Haradinaj, no one came to bother you ever again, did they?” Emmerson asked.
“No,” the witness responded.
“So would you agree with me that throughout your dealings with that man [you believed to be Haradinaj], you were treated fairly and courteously by him?” Emmerson asked.
“Yes, that’s correct,” the witness said.
The witness also said that given the time frame in which these events unfolded, he did not think the commander knew who brought him there or what he was accused of.
“I’m not sure, but I believe he was not aware,” the witness said.
When the witness told the commander that it was Brahimaj who had brought him there, the commander “made a noise”.
“It seemed incomprehensible to him, I think,” the witness said. “I think he was angry.”
The witness said that when his relatives came to pick him up, the commander told him to return to his family and “stay away from what happened”.
“Did you understand this to mean that you would be safely returned and nothing bad would happen to you again?” Emmerson asked.
“Yes,” the witness responded. “I’ve never been afraid of Mr Haradinaj. I’m not afraid even now.”
The witness said that since that time, he had experienced no “harm” or “threats”.
“Is it fair to say that once you had come to the attention of Mr Haradinaj, from that point onwards you were safe?” Emmerson asked.
“Yes, this is what happened,” the witness confirmed. “I never had any problems.”
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.