Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Limaj Speaks of “Clear Conscience”
Former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Fatmir Limaj has accused Hague prosecutors of pursuing the victims of war crimes, rather than the perpetrators, in an effort to please the Serbian government.
Limaj, who has built a successful political career in Kosovo in recent years, is charged with torture and murder of Serbs and Albanians suspected of collaborating with the Serbian government at a prison camp run in his area of responsibility in 1998.
He is being tried along with two other former KLA members, Isak Musliu and Haradin Bala, who prosecutors claim were subordinate to Limaj, and were personally involved in the alleged crimes. All three have pleaded not guilty.
In his opening statement on November 16, Limaj accused prosecutors of having underhand motives for prosecuting Albanians for crimes in Kosovo in 1998, and alleged that they have ignored atrocities committed by Serbs in the same period.
Referring to horrors inflicted on Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces in the Nineties, Limaj said he was proud of his decision to fight Belgrade and that he not only has a clean conscience, but also the support of his people.
Prosecutors used the week to outline their case against Limaj and his co-defendants and to call their first witness, one of the team tasked with investigating the alleged Lapusnik prison camp.
During his two-hour speech on November16, Limaj was careful to show his respect for the tribunal judges.
But he attacked prosecutors for ignoring alleged Serb atrocities in Kosovo. “The failure to indict these crimes in 1998 cannot be explained other than with the fact that the prosecutor has closed both eyes... forgiving the Serbian forces all the crimes committed,” he said.
Acknowledging that Serbs also suffered in Kosovo, Limaj offered his condolences to those Serb victims who disappeared or were killed. But he denied playing any role in such events.
And he accused prosecutors of proceeding with the case against him out of a desire to see Albanians appear before the tribunal, rather than because of solid evidence. “Suspicions arise,” he said, “that Albanians are being used as scapegoats... just because Belgrade wants it.”
“You have to be worried about the credibility of what’s going on here and especially how much [the Hague tribunal] is being undermined in Kosovo [as a result].”
Limaj devoted much of his time to speaking about his life growing up in Kosovo. He described the closure of Kosovo’s parliament and its only Albanian-language television channel by the Belgrade government. And he talked of police brutality, the expulsion of Albanians from jobs in the courts, hospitals and education system, and mass migrations of Albanians abroad.
Under the circumstances, he said, he made the right decision to join the armed fight against the Belgrade government. “There are two ways, either to live humiliated or to live free,” he told judges, “and I’m proud of finding... the best possible way, the road to freedom.”
Thanking all those responsible for making him the man he is today – including his family, the people of his home town and his former professors – and drawing parallels with Nelson Mandela, who also faced jail as a result of his effort to protect the rights of his own people, Limaj told judges he is at ease with himself.
“From all the things I have done until now, throughout my life, I have no reason to feel myself humiliated, to have a bad conscience...” he said. “On the contrary, everything I’ve done until this moment is as clear as daylight.”
“And Kosovo will praise my work,” he added. “This is vital to me.”
Limaj said it is this support that has kept him and his two co-defendants going in the Hague detention centre, where he claimed the three Albanian prisoners have faced victimisation, including being kept incommunicado and being forced to wear blindfolds during transfer between the prison and the court.
An order withdrawing the three accused’s visiting rights and access to telephone calls was originally put in place in response to accusations that Limaj and Musliu had been orchestrating efforts to interfere with prosecution witnesses directly from the detention centre. A Kosovar Albanian, Beqe Beqaj, appeared before the tribunal last week to plead not guilty to acting on their behalf to try to get witnesses to pull out of the prosecution case.
But the order to restrict their communication with the outside world expired in recent days and prosecutors have not sought to renew it.
The three had also been blindfolded during trips from the detention centre to the court, in accordance with the regulations on “high risk prisoners” implemented in the host country of the Netherlands. But following intervention by the registrar and the cancellation of the November 17 court hearing, apparently because the defendants refused to wear their blindfolds to be transferred to the tribunal, the Dutch government has reportedly changed its position on the matter.
In his own opening statement on November 15, prosecutor Andrew Cayley said the prosecution will call on forensic evidence and witnesses including survivors of the Lapusnik camp, the widow of one of the alleged victims, former KLA members and international observers to build its case.
Prosecutors hope to show that more than 20 murders were committed by guards at the Lapusnik camp - including Limaj’s two co-defendants - and that Limaj himself, as commander, is responsible for these crimes.
Later in the week, prosecutors called their first witness, Oli Lahtinen, a member of the Hague prosecution team involved in investigating the case.
Lahtinen talked judges through an interactive computer presentation of the alleged camp in Lapusnik, built up from recent photographs of the compound where it was apparently located.
He also spoke about items seized from the houses of the three accused following their arrests in 2003. Among the evidence discovered in a storeroom in Limaj’s apartment was a notebook, apparently signed by a third party, which contained information on the movements of Albanians suspected of collaborating with Serbs. The notes made reference to a man whose murder is listed in the indictment against Limaj.
Lahtinen’s testimony is expected to continue into next week.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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