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

Kosovo: KLA Trial Backlash

International officials in Kosovo are feeling the heat following the jailing of former KLA rebels.
By Arben Qirezi

The first war crimes trial of former Kosovo Liberation Army members threatens to inflict a serious blow to international efforts to establish the rule of law in Kosovo.


Following the sentencing of the Llap/Lap group of ex-KLA fighters on July 16, the international police and judiciary stationed in the region have been subjected to a wave of violence.


There were two synchronized bomb attacks in Pristina on July 20. A rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the district court building, causing significant damage. One minute later, an explosion outside a police station damaged a UN police vehicle. There were no casualties.


Earlier, on July 17, a hand grenade exploded outside the police station in Podujeva/Podujevo, northeast of Pristina, the birthplace of the four convicted persons. Two days later, KFOR disposed of a grenade found on the street just behind the capital's district court. On the same day, 15 UN police vehicles were vandalized overnight in Pristina and Peja/Pec, in western Kosovo - those in the latter daubed with the word "occupier" in Albanian.


Local political leaders in Kosovo condemned the incidents, saying they jeopardised the rule of law.


Although no organisation has admitted responsibility for the incidents, they are widely believed to be connected to the outcome of the Llap/Lap group trial.


The five-month judicial process under the British judge Timothy Clayson resulted in four ex-KLA men being jailed for 45 years. Rrustem Mustafa-Remi, former commander of the KLA in northeastern Kosovo, was sentenced to 17 years, Nazim Mehmeti to 13, Latif Gashi to 10 and Naim Kadriu to seven, for torture, kidnapping and inhuman treatment of civilians during the Kosovo conflict in 1998 and 1999.


They were found guilty of illegally detaining and torturing 11 ethnic Albanians and one Serb, and of executing six Albanians suspected of collaborating with the Serb regime.


UNMIK police chief Stephan Feller said at the press conference that the wave of attacks was clearly connected to the trial verdict, adding that the aim was to disrupt police work and justice in Kosovo. He said UNMIK was lucky there had been no casualties.


Another UNMIK official told IWPR they were probably warning attacks, suggesting that there may be more if further trials were staged.


After Serb forces withdrew from Kosovo, UNMIK filled the security and administrative vacuum, bringing in international police, foreign judges and prosecutors to deal with issues such as organised crime, ethnic violence and war crimes.


There are now 4,472 international police officers there, working with 6,000 local police officers trained in an OSCE-run police training facility in Vushtri/Vucitrn.


The justice system is served by 14 international judges and 12 international prosecutors who deal exclusively with tough cases from which local judicial personnel have been excluded on grounds of potential bias.


Despite widespread public criticism for allegedly holding politically-motivated trials that have "criminalised" the struggle against Serb rule, UNMIK insists it will continue to prosecute perpetrators of atrocities and other crimes involving former KLA members.


Just before he finished his mission in early July, UNMIK chief Michael Steiner promulgated a new criminal code for the region, giving more powers to international prosecutors to investigate atrocities and other serious crimes. The code also provides for more effective witness-protection, which is one of the biggest obstacles currently hampering prosecutions.


This, however, might bring more trouble for the international authorities in Kosovo.


Reflecting the general mood amongst Albanians, Kreshnik Gashi, a student from Pristina, told IWPR, "No one disputes UNMIK's authority to stage war crimes trials. However, the length of the sentence given to Remi and his group shows its bias, because no Serb has ever been sentenced for such a long term by international judges, even though they have been tried for crimes which have exceeded the allegations against Remi and his group, both in the number of people killed, and the means used to do those killings."


There are suggestions that the motives for the attacks on the internationals are not only connected to the outcome of the trial, but also reflect deeper dissatisfaction with the overall policy of the international community in Kosovo.


Sahit Berisha, a history teacher in a secondary school in Pristina, expressed the view held in some circles that the trials of the former KLA men are just an indication of the UNMIK policy to return Kosovo to Serbia. "These bombs are an initial reaction for something bigger which might erupt if the international community doesn't stop pushing Kosovo towards Serbia," he said.


UNMIK says the spate of recent attacks will not deflect the force from its stated policy of zero tolerance against crime. The police "will not be intimidated by such criminal acts", Feller said.


However, UNMIK may be more vulnerable than its top officials care to admit. The justice system relies on international personnel leant by various governments for its work. They may prove reluctant to contribute more staff in the future, if attacks against them persist.


Arben Qirezi is an IWPR contributor in Pristina.