Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
By the time the first break came round, they had covered his arrest in 2003 for arms dealing, the few months in the year before that when he was dependent on heroin and had been involved in the sale of the drug, and the fact that when he first spoke to war crimes investigators he did so as a suspect rather than a witness.
Of all this, the ex-KLA man – testifying under full protective measures and referred to in court only as “L-64” – was clearly least comfortable speaking about his drugs problem.
“I don’t like to talk about it,” he told judges, later adding “I’m very ashamed...”
The arms dealing charges were eventually suspended in return for L-64’s continued cooperation with tribunal prosecutors. And having been released from jail, the prosecution witness was then relocated outside Kosovo for his own safety.
L-64 arrived in The Hague this week to fulfil his side of the deal – and provide key testimony against Fatmir Limaj, Isak Musliu and Haradin Bala, accused of running a prison camp in the village of Lapusnik in 1998 where dozens of Serbs and suspected Albanian collaborators were starved, beaten and murdered.
Over two full days of evidence – cut short on March 17 by news that Limaj was unable to attend court due to illness – the witness confirmed the existence of such a camp, described his own visits to the facility in June and July that year and spoke of the badly beaten detainees he saw there.
Bala, he confirmed, worked as a guard at the prison throughout that period, Musliu was the KLA commander responsible for Lapusnik and Limaj was his direct superior, based in nearby Klecke.
His testimony directly contradicts the position held by Bala’s defence counsel, who say their client was based elsewhere in Kosovo from mid-May 1998.
And while former detainees have confirmed the existence of the Lapusnik camp, his evidence stands in stark contrast to that given by a number of other KLA members who, having been issued with subpoenas and obliged to testify publicly in the case in recent weeks, have denied any knowledge of it and have for the most part played down Limaj’s role in the KLA at the time.
L-64 told judges that he first arrived in Lapusnik on May 10 1998 to help fight Serb troops who were mounting an attack in the area. With the enemy defeated on that occasion, he stayed on in the village until it finally fell in late July.
The witness – who brought with him a diary he compiled in 1998 of his experiences in Lapusnik – told judges that a few days after he arrived, the KLA troops in the village were paid a visit by a commander known as “Celiku”, or “Steel”, Limaj’s nickname during the war.
The men were lined up and, after a rousing speech, Celiku announced, “I am responsible for this territory and... anything you have you can do it through Qerqiz.”
Prosecutors say Qerqiz was the nomme de guerre of the accused Musliu.
“We all knew our commander was Qerqiz,” reported the witness, who also said it was “common knowledge” that he in turn received orders from Celiku.
Both Limaj and Musliu are charged partly on grounds of command responsibility – the idea, built into the tribunal’s statue, that a commander can be made to answer for crimes committed by his subordinates if he failed to prevent them or punish the perpetrators afterwards.
Lawyers for Limaj and Musliu have replied that their clients – far from being commanders at the time – were in fact just “organisers” or “coordinators” in what was still a rather ramshackle militia, and had no power to actually tell them what to do.
But the witness told judges that within Lapusnik, Qerqiz was responsible for disseminating orders, signing travel permits, selecting new recruits and contacting the Klecke headquarters when they needed more ammunition.
And he described occasions when Qerqiz stripped soldiers of their weapons as punishment for drinking alcohol or for travelling away from their assigned area without permission.
The KLA, he said, was “even more disciplined than the Serb army”.
When shown photographs of the family compound in Lapusnik alleged by prosecutors to have been used as a prison camp from May to July 1998, the witness confirmed that this was the case.
He told judges that he personally visited the detention facility six to eight times during the period it was operational.
The first time he went, he told judges, it was to take a look at a “big spy” by the name of Ajet Gashi who he heard had been captured and was being held there. When he saw the man, he said, he looked like he might be “sick” and seemed unable to stand.
Prosecutors say Gashi, a former policeman suspected by local KLA of collaborating with the Serb authorities, was beaten viciously at the camp before being taken off and shot by the side of a road, and his body dumped there as a warning to others.
On subsequent visits to the camp, the witness – who on two occasions in court freely admitted to his own readiness to kill or harm “collaborators” – said, “There was always someone who seemed to have been beaten up, injured, maltreated.”
He testified that he saw Qerqiz entering or leaving the place two or three times. Musliu denies knowing about any such detention facility in Lapusnik.
And although the witness said he was on good terms with Bala at the time and still didn’t believe he was capable of mistreating anyone, he confirmed he had also seen him on guard duty at the prison.
The witness also described the KLA’s allegedly brutal treatment of a prisoner - not directly related to the Lapusnik camp: a Serb officer who was captured and desperately volunteered information on military plans in return for his life.
But, according to what he had heard, the local KLA command, “headed by Fatmir Limaj”, was unmoved and “closed the book” on the matter by dousing him with petrol and setting him alight.
The witness said he later saw a burnt body by the road and was told it was the same Serb officer.
L-64 will return to court on March 18 to continue his testimony, when counsel for the accused will also have a chance to cross-examine him.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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