Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
This week he faced the consequences of his decision to testify – an aggressive cross-examination by prosecution lawyers determined to prove he is lying.
Limaj is charged – along with two of his alleged KLA subordinates, Isak Musliu and Haradin Bala – with the abuse and murders of Serb civilians and suspected Albanian collaborators in an ad hoc detention centre in the village of Lapusnik from May to July 1998.
He and Bala are also said to be responsible for the summary executions of at least ten prisoners when the facility was abandoned during a hasty retreat by local KLA forces that summer.
Prosecutors took advantage of their opportunity this week to confront Limaj with a series of witness testimonies, media reports and KLA press releases, as well as papers confiscated from his Pristina apartment after he was arrested in 2003.
They claim the documents prove that during the relevant time period, the accused was the local KLA commander responsible for the Lapusnik camp and was deeply implicated in the crimes listed in the indictment.
Limaj, for his part, continued to insist that the evidence has been manipulated in an effort to blacken his name. He denies any knowledge of a prison camp in Lapusnik, despite evidence given by a number of witnesses which appears to place him in and around the facility.
Later in the week, his defence lawyers called an independent security analyst to testify that the KLA in early 1998 was still such a ramshackle guerrilla force that crimes committed by its members at the time do not meet the legal standard demanded by a Hague trial.
Given the chance to question Limaj in person this week, prosecutor Alex Whiting demanded to know why the documents found in his home should include one referring to Lutfi Xhemshiti.
Prosecutors allege that Xhemshiti was seen in Lapusnik and that his body was later exhumed in the nearby Berisa mountains, where the July massacre allegedly occurred.
The accused insists that the first time he ever heard of Xhemshiti was when the name appeared in the war crimes indictment against him, and argued that the document must date back to his own time as a spokesperson for the ministry of defence in Pristina. The ministry offices were cramped, he said, so he had agreed to store reams of papers in his own home.
The same went, Limaj claimed, for a number of other documents – including correspondence about plans to kidnap a Serb woman, detailed surveillance notes concerning one man’s meetings with members of the Serb security forces and what appeared to be notes about suspected collaborators in Pristina university.
Much of Limaj’s cross-examination was given over to questioning about the structure of the KLA in the first half of 1998, particularly in and around Lapusnik.
Prosecutors have filed charges against Limaj partly on the grounds of command responsibility - the idea that a commander is to blame for crimes committed by his subordinates if he did not prevent them from happening or fully investigate and punish them afterwards.
For this, it is necessary to show that Limaj operated within some sort of command hierarchy at the time when the crimes are alleged to have occurred.
For Limaj to be found guilty of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war – both of which are included in the charge sheet against him – it must also be shown that a legally-defined “armed conflict” existed in Kosovo during the relevant time period.
This, too, involves proving that the KLA was an “organised armed group”.
To this end, Whiting presented Limaj with television news footage, documentaries, witness statements from his former KLA comrades and a copy of “Phoenixes of Freedom” - a biography of one particular member killed in fighting with Serb security forces.
All this evidence, Whiting argued, suggested that the KLA was already established as an organised army at the time and that Limaj was the regional commander responsible for Lapusnik.
But Limaj insisted that the material was misleading. He accused Whiting of misrepresenting his former comrades’ statements and dismissed some of them as ignorant of the situation in Lapusnik.
He also claimed that “Phoenixes of Freedom” was full of “grave mistakes”, despite the fact that his own signature was included inside the book among a list of people who had approved its publication.
He explained that he had given his approval for a project to document the lives of KLA “martyrs” but had never been consulted about the content of this particular book, which he insisted he had never even seen before.
Limaj maintained – as he has throughout the case – that in reality, KLA forces around Lapusnik did not have any real military hierarchy until a brigade was formally established in the area in August 1998, after the Lapusnik prison had apparently been closed down.
Later in the week, Limaj’s defence counsel called their first expert witness – Robert Churcher, a former British army officer now working as a freelance security consultant.
Churcher told judges that in the spring of 1998 the KLA had no effective military hierarchy and even its general staff “didn’t really understand what they were doing with regards military command”. Any KLA communiques from the time which suggested otherwise, he said, were “pure propaganda”.
Churcher argued that for these reasons it would be difficult to say that there was a legally-defined armed conflict in Kosovo at the time.
In cross-examination, prosecution lawyers set about attacking the witness’s expertise, forcing him to admit that he had lived in Tanzania from January until around June 12, 1998 and had been informed about developments in Kosovo at the time only through “social contacts”.
Churcher went on to admit that even after June 12 he had been based in Albania, rather than in Kosovo itself.
Prosecutors also forced him to acknowledge the strengths of the witnesses they themselves had called to speak about the structure of the KLA in 1998.
These included an Austrian diplomat and a former British military attaché to Belgrade, both of whom had travelled in the area around Lapusnik during the time period in question and had spoken with local KLA fighters.
The trial continues.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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