The Hague to try alleged Kosovo war criminals

Ethnic Albanian guerrillas from Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to be tried for alleged war crimes in The Hague

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

A Kosovo Albanian man in military uniform waves an Albanian flag during a protest in front of Kosovo parliament on May 29, 2015 as it postponed a vote on an EU and US-backed special war crimes court

A new EU-backed court to try war crimes allegedly committed by ethnic Albanian guerrillas during the bitter Kosovo conflict will open this year in The Hague, Dutch officials said on Friday.

"The court will try serious crimes allegedly committed in 1999-2000 by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) against ethnic minorities and political opponents," the Dutch Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Opening more than a decade and a half after the Kosovo war ended, the new tribunal will have international judges but will be part of the Kosovo judicial system. Those convicted will not serve their sentences in the Netherlands.

It will be housed in a former building belonging to the European police agency Europol, once a new extension has been built, and will be funded by the European Union.

The 1998-1999 war pitted ethnic Albanian guerrillas seeking independence for the southern Serbian province of Kosovo against Serbia's forces, who withdrew from the territory after an 11-week NATO bombing campaign.

Pristina has been under intense international pressure to create the special court since a 2011 Council of Europe report on alleged crimes by KLA members.

The report unveiled reports of abductions, summary executions and -- most controversially -- the trafficking of prisoners' organs, with special rapporteur Dick Marty accusing the KLA of abusing, torturing and killing 500 prisoners, mostly ethnic Serbs and Roma.

Sensitive cases

Marty's report notably pointed the finger at former guerrilla chief and prime minister Hashim Thaci, who is now Kosovo's foreign minister - accusations Thaci has vehemently denied.

"This is a sensitive issue in Kosovo," the Dutch Foreign Ministry acknowledged.

"Possible suspects may be seen by sections of Kosovan society as freedom fighters, and witnesses may feel threatened in Kosovo. This is why the option of trying cases outside Kosovo was explored."

Establishing such a court triggered heated debate in Pristina, with the opposition boycotting the vote in August.

But Prime Minister Isa Mustafa told legislators at the time that such a tribunal was a key demand of Kosovo's strategic partners, especially the United States and the European Union.

The war in Kosovo, which came amid the chaos of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, ended when a three-month long NATO air campaign drove Serbian forces out of the breakaway territory in June 1999.

The people of Albanian-majority Kosovo, with its population of some 1.8 million, unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008, a move that Serbia still refuses to recognise.