Kosovo lawmakers rejected the creation of a special court that would have tried Albanian ex-guerrilla leaders for alleged crimes that were committed during the war against Serbia in 1998 and 1999.
The measure fell five votes short in Kosovo's Parliament on Friday. The proposed EU-backed establishment would have amended the constitution and allowed a special court to review alleged crimes by Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commanders, including organ harvesting and other human rights violations. The West has long pressured Kosovo to address the allegations, which has heightened tensions among veterans' organizations and opposition parties who found the proposed court disrespectful.
For years, allegations have swirled around the KLA, which is now disbanded. Human rights advocates, EU and NATO officials, and Serbia have continuously claimed that the KLA functioned like a mafia shortly after independence. In Kosovo, however, the KLA are mostly embraced as heroes for fighting against Serbia. Over the years, attempts to investigate or prosecute KLA members have drawn crowds of protestors. A crowd of about 1,000 Kosovars, mostly veterans, gathered in the capital Pristina last week to protest against the proposed war crimes court. Many of the accused KLA members have made their way up the ranks of the Kosovo government.
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Former prime minister and ex-KLA commander Ramush Haradinaj felt that the court would have meted out selective justice, since Belgrade has not established a similar tribunal.
"This is not happening to other republics of the former Yugoslavia. This is not happening to Serbia. This is not happening to all the others that were parties in war," Haradinaj said, according to Balkan Insight.
Haradinaj was detained last week in Slovenia on a Serbian arrest warrant. His arrest sparked outrage, with protestors rallying outside the Slovenian embassy with signs that read "Shame on Slovenia," and calling for a boycott of Slovenian products. Some supporters even threatened to burn "everything that is Slovenian," according to reports.
Clint Williamson, chief prosecutor of the Special Investigative Task Force (SITF), released a statement last year accusing KLA leaders of murdering a "handful" of people. The report follows the investigation of an earlier Council of Europe inquiry led by Dick Marty, a Swiss politician, in 2010. According to the investigation, senior officials led a "campaign of persecution" toward Serbs, Roma, other minority groups in Kosovo, as well as Albanians who either worked with Serbs or opposed the KLA.
"If even one person was subjected to such a horrific practice, and we believe a small number were, that is a terrible tragedy and the fact that it occurred on a limited scale does not diminish the savagery of such a crime," Williamson said in the report. "As long as a few powerful people continue to thwart investigations into their own criminality, the people of Kosovo as a whole pay the price as this leaves a dark cloud over the country,"
KLA members certainly still hold influence in Kosovo, and they have threatened witnesses in the past.
Kosovar journalist Artan Haraqija told VICE News that the atmosphere surrounding the proposed court has been "too tense."
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"We are caught between the interest of ordinary citizens who want to move on and the interests of former KLA commanders who remain strong and very corrupt," Haraqija told VICE News, noting that KLA commanders "will lose a lot if this court happens."
Hashim Thaci, another former KLA commander who is currently Kosovo's foreign minister, stressed that the court would have preserved the KLA's legacy and strengthened Kosovo's ties with foreign powers. "We will prove that we have nothing to hide and preserve the historical and strategic alliance with our partners the United States of America, the European Union, and NATO," he said. "We have to establish this independent and international institution."
Thaci, who was known as The Snake when he served in the KLA, continues to deny allegations that he was involved in corruption and killings. Serbia has threatened to arrest Thaci if he shows up in Belgrade.
The failure to establish the court is a blow to the US and Western European governments who backed the KLA during the war. In the past, the US along with the European Union have warned that if Kosovo does not establish the court, the UN Security Council and Russia, a main Serbian ally, who also does not recognize Kosovo's independence, will become involved.
Follow Arijeta Lajka on Twitter: @arijetalajka