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

Senior KLA Men Jailed

The imprisonment of former Albanian rebels has deepened distrust of the Kosovo judicial system.
By Arben Qirezi

Five senior former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, have been sentenced to a total of 31 years in prison for the unlawful detention and murder of four Albanian men.


The controversial trial, which ended in Pristina on Tuesday, December 17, was the first to involve such senior KLA figures – who are still regarded as heroes and liberators by the majority of Kosovo’s population.


An international panel of judges at a district court in the capital found Idriz Balaj, Daut Haradinaj, Bekim Zekaj, Ahmet Elshani and Ramush Ahmetaj guilty of the June 1999 killings of Bashkim Balaj, Rexhe Osaj, Sinan Musaj and Idriz Peja.


The United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, run court sentenced Balaj to 15 years imprisonment, Haradinaj and Zekaj to five, Elshani and Ahmetaj to three.


Daut Haradinaj is the brother of former KLA commander Ramush Haradinaj – who now leads the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK – the protectorate’s third largest political party. The AAK won control of the western town of Decan – located in the Dukagjin (Metohija to the Serbs) region - in October’s elections.


Immediately after UNMIK judge Maurice de Therenaurd had passed sentence on Daut Haradinaj, the AAK leader accused the UN mission of “organising a politically motivated trial” against his brother – and denounced the protectorate’s judiciary as unjust.


The prosecution had claimed that the so-called Dukagjini Group had abducted, tortured and finally executed Balaj, Osaj, Musaj and Peja on June 25, 1999, in the village of Ratish, western Kosovo.


UNMIK’s had based its case on the testimony of Vesel Muriqi, who told the court that he had been kidnapped along with the others, but had escaped on his way to the execution site. He identified the five defendants as the men who carried out the attack.


The witness and the four other victims were members of the Armed Forces of Republic of Kosovo, FARK, an armed group which rivaled the KLA during the 1998-99 conflict, and was associated with the influential Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK.


The defence team concentrated on proving alibis for the suspects, with lawyers claiming that Daut Haradinaj had been seen visiting wounded KLA fighters in a Tirana hospital at the time of the murders.


An Italian medial doctor, Andrea Cadelano, appeared as defence’s main witness and testified that he had met Haradinaj in the military hospital in the Albanian capital.


But a former member of Daut’s military unit, Ilir Selimaj, was unveiled as a surprise prosecution witness and testified against his ex-colleagues in return for charges against him being dropped.


The trial was seen as the toughest test for UNMIK since it took control of the protectorate in 1999, and may cause further problems for the peacekeepers throughout the region.


The arrest of the Dukagjini Group on June 18 caused an uproar among Kosovar Albanians who still view the KLA as liberators, and daily protests were held in the capital and in Haradinaj’s Decan stronghold.


The demonstrations were only halted after Ramush Haradinaj – a key player in the coalition government – persuaded protesters that his brother would be proved innocent.


General Agim Ceku, the chief of the Kosovo Protection Corps, a civilian emergency unit transformed from KLA, said the latest trial of former KLA members has resulted in general disappointment in the justice system.


Kosovo’s judiciary, which is administrated by UNMIK and gives primacy to international judges and prosecutors, has been criticised by both Serbs and Albanians for being biaised and inefficient.


Analysts say Albanian discontent may increase further with the forthcoming trial of ex-KLA commander Rustem Mustafa Remi on war crimes charges, the first such trial in the protectorate.


Many Albanians refuse to accept that some of their fighters may have committed atrocities in the Kosovo war, which they see as a legitimate liberation struggle.


Arben Qirezi is a political analyst and a regular IWPR contributor.