|Limaj was earlier tried for war crimes committed in another prison but was aquitted in 2007 [EPA]|
A top Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander turned popular politician has pleaded not guilty to ordering torture and killings during the 1998-99 Kosovo war as his trial opened in Pristina.
Fatmir Limaj entered the plea on Friday before a three-member panel chaired by British judge Jonathan Welford-Carroll at the start of the most high-profile case in Kosovo since the end of the war.
Limaj, a former leader of the KLA who fought for independence from Serbia, is charged with committing war crimes against civilians and prisoners of war.
Prosecutors allege that eight prisoners, seven Serbs and one Albanian, were killed by Limaj’s subordinates in a prison camp under his command.
“Limaj was the person who exercised overall control of the Klecka detention centre,” Italian prosecutor Maurizio Salustro told the court.
The Albanian civilians and Serbian military prisoners held by the KLA in Klecka were kept in “inhumane conditions” with not enough food, lack of basic sanitation and suffering “frequent beatings,” he added.
The prosecutor said Limaj “personally tortured” a Serbian prisoner in the Klecka prison, located 30km southwest of Pristina, and ordered his men to execute two Serb policemen.
As the indictment was read out in court, Limaj, dressed in a navy suit and tie, looked tense as he whispered to his British lawyer Karim Khan.
If convicted he faces a maximum prison sentence of 40 years.
The case in Pristina marks the first time a top KLA commander who fought the forces of the then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic has been tried for war crimes before the local judiciary.
Kosovo veterans condemn the case as an attempt to discredit the KLA by putting it on a par with the Serb regime.
The war, which claimed about 13,000 lives, ended when a NATO-led air campaign ousted Milosevic’s forces.
Limaj, 40, remains a popular politician and is deputy president of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo of prime minister Hashim Thaci.
Limaj and nine other defendants, all of whom pleaded not guilty, appeared before a mixed panel composed of one local and two European Union judges for the start of the case Friday.
The EU judges and prosecutor Salustro are part of the 3,000-strong EU rule of law mission (EULEX), which is mandated to oversee Kosovo’s justice system and can step in to handle sensitive cases.
After the pleas the court moved on to procedural matters with the defence lawyers demanding the removal of Salustro, arguing that the prosecutor was biased because he was withholding evidence.
The EU prosecutor stressed that some of the evidence in the case was highly sensitive and it was up to the court to decide if the defence can see it.
The court will have to rule on the defence request to remove Salustro before deciding on any of the other requests. The case was adjourned Friday and will resume Monday, the judges said.
Limaj’s defence team also asked for more time to prepare the case.
Limaj was earlier tried for war crimes committed at another prison camp before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, but was acquitted in 2007.
Kosovo finally broke away from Serbia with a unilateral declaration of independence in 2008.