Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Prosecutors Wrap Up KLA Case
Prosecutors last week finished presenting evidence against the first Kosovo Albanian defendants ever to appear before the Hague tribunal, leaving defence counsel with a substantial case to answer.
Through the course of 67 hearings since the trial opened on November 15, 2004, 29 witnesses have been summoned to court in an effort to show that Fatmir Limaj, Isak Musliu and Haradin Bala operated a brutal Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, prison camp in the village of Lapusnik in 1998.
Prosecutors also submitted affidavits from a further 28 witnesses, along with 217 other documents including maps, photo line-ups, notebooks and KLA press releases.
Judges heard that Serbs and Albanians suspected of collaborating with the Belgrade authorities were detained at the Lapusnik facility in horrific conditions and were starved, beaten and murdered.
And they also saw evidence of the roles allegedly played by Limaj and Bala in the murder of ten detainees after the camp was evacuated in the face of a Serb offensive in late July that year.
A series of witnesses spoke in court about their own abduction by KLA troops and their subsequent detention in Lapusnik, in a compound which judges were able to tour via a 3D presentation constructed from recent photographs of the buildings.
While much testimony was heard in private in an effort to limit any intimidation of witnesses, a number of those testifying in public spoke out about the abuse they saw and underwent in the camp at the hands of KLA guards.
They told how they were given cups of tea and were forced to watch as others were beaten, and they described seeing prisoners looking bruised, “traumatised”, semi-conscious, “shaking with fear” and so badly injured that they urinated blood.
Some listed the names of inmates they met during their time in the camp, which tally with a list of people who were apparently never seen alive again.
Judges also heard from witnesses who said that on the day the prison was abandoned, they were led in a column into the nearby Berisa mountains. After some were released, one man recounted how he was taken into a clearing with a number of other prisoners and managed to escape just seconds before their KLA guards opened fire on the group.
Judges heard large amounts of evidence that appeared to place the accused in the Lapusnik camp, despite claims by all three that they hadn’t even heard of such a facility at the time.
Many witnesses recalled encounters with a guard known as “Shala” – which Bala, who claims to have been elsewhere in Kosovo for most of the period in question, admits was his nickname at the time.
Other witnesses specifically identified Bala as the man they saw working at the Lapusnik prison and as one of those who took part in the final massacre.
Witnesses also spoke about their encounters in and around the camp with a KLA soldier who went by the nom de guerre “Qerqiz”, a nickname that was identified with the accused Musliu. They described him as the commander of the KLA unit based in Lapusnik.
At least one man described being kicked unconscious in the Lapusnik prison by a soldier he identified specifically as Musliu.
A number of ex-KLA witnesses – appearing in court reluctantly and only after being issued with a subpoena – muddied the waters in relation to Limaj’s position at the time, denying prosecutors’ claims that he was Musliu’s superior and was responsible for what went on at the camp.
Prosecutors regularly complained that this contradicted evidence these witnesses had given in interviews before the start of the trial, where they had confirmed Limaj’s role as the local commander with authority over Lapusnik.
But many other witnesses corroborated the prosecution position, including one ex-KLA man appearing under protective measures who said it was common knowledge at the time that Qerqiz received his orders from “Celiku”, a name Limaj admits having used during the war.
And the witness who said he survived the final massacre also recounted a meeting with Celiku, who spoke with guards en route to the site of the killing. And at least one other witness said that on the same day, he was given a note authorising his release, which was issued in this commander’s name. Other evidence appeared to place Limaj inside the camp itself.
With so much evidence in the prosecution phase of the trial heard in private, it is difficult to second-guess how defence lawyers will approach the case when they take the floor on May 17.
But given the amount of evidence suggesting the existence of a camp in Lapusnik where prisoners were abused and murdered, they are likely to devote much of their time trying to raise doubts about the role the accused played in relation to the facility.
This tactic is likely to rest at least in part on the question of their clients’ nicknames at the time, since a significant amount of evidence has been given with reference to these monikers. For example, lawyers representing Bala have made much of the fact that there was another KLA soldier in Lapusnik who also went by the name “Shala”.
Lawyers for all three accused have also criticised identifications of their clients, suggesting witnesses only knew their names and faces because they had followed the trial in the media.
According to estimates given by defence counsel before the current break in proceedings, the next stage in the trial is likely to take up to two months. Prosecutors will then have a chance to revisit the case before defence lawyers make their final rebuttal.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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