President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo stepped down on November 5 in response to charges of murder, torture, and persecution related to his involvement in Kosovo’s war for independence in 1998. NPR reports that Thaci stepped down in order “to protect the integrity of the state” of Kosovo. He also reportedly urged Kosovars to maintain “political and civic unity.” Thaci is scheduled to appear in court on November 9. He was flown to The Hague, along with Kadrim Veseli, leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, and Rexhep Selimi, a Kosovo Member of Parliament, reports the BBC.
The Associated Press reports that Thaci had served as a guerrilla leader during Kosovo’s war for independence from Serbia in the late 1990s. He rose to political prominence in the aftermath of that conflict, which killed over 10,000 people. Thaci served as the political chief of the rebel group Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), according to Al Jazeera. The KLA battled Serb forces for the independence of the southern province in a conflict that claimed more than 13,000 lives and only ended when a NATO air campaign forced Serb forces to withdraw. Thaci, several other guerilla leaders, and KLA members from the war have been indicted by an international prosecutor on ten charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The men charged with these crimes led fighters alongside the KLA. Those fighters are accused of illegally imprisoning, abusing, and murdering captured opponents and perceived traitors during the war. They, along with other members of the KLA, carried out “a widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population,” including those believed to be collaborating with Serb forces, or not cooperating with the KLA, reports Aljazeera. According to The Guardian, the special prosecutor’s office alleged that Thaci and the others charged were “criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders.” Thaci, however, insists that he is innocent of these crimes.
According to The Washington Post, a special prosecutor in The Hague first announced preliminary indictments against Thaci in June, only days before he was scheduled to attend a White House meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to improve relations between the two countries. The relationship between Serbia and Kosovo has been tense since the conflict that occurred in the late 1990s, with Serbia refusing to acknowledge Kosovo’s sovereignty and independence. The two countries did, however, normalize economic ties in September after successful U.S.-brokered peace talks between them, reports Reuters.
Thaci, in his indictment hearing on November 9, pled not guilty, reports Al Jazeera. In a statement to the court, Thaci said, “The indictment is completely without basis, and I plead not guilty to all the charges in the indictment.” His lawyer, David Hooper, decried the treatment Thaci was receiving, saying it was “disgraceful” that he was held in handcuffs outside the court, and announced that he intended to seek Thaci’s conditional release.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that citizens in Kosovo are opposing the court’s decision to charge Thaci with war crimes. They, in fact, view him and other members of the KLA as heroes. A Kosovar economist living in the country’s capital said, “I think a big injustice is being committed here by putting on trial our liberators.”
There are, however, those who are grateful for Thaci’s indictment, according to Reuters. In Belgrade, lawmaker Milovan Drecun, the chairman of the Serbian parliamentary committee for Kosovo, said the indictment proved that “establishing the truth about war crimes of the KLA and punishing those responsible is an irreversible process.” Additionally, Amnesty International said the indictment against Thaci gave hope to thousands of victims of the war “who have waited for more than two decades to find out the truth about the horrific crimes.