Kosovo’s former president, Hashim Thaci, has pleaded not guilty to war crimes charges in the 1990s war against Serbia as he appeared for the first time at a special international court in The Hague.
The 52-year-old is charged along with three others with war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder and torture during an alleged campaign by the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) between 1998 and 1999 against civilians it deemed to be its enemies.
The defendants allegedly 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.
Thaci resigned as president on Thursday and flew to the Netherlands where he was placed in the detention centre of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers tribunal.
“The indictment is completely without basis, and I plead not guilty to all the charges in the indictment,” he told the court on Monday, rising to his feet after the judge asked him if he wished to plead guilty or not guilty.
“I understood them, I heard them today, I read them, and I do not agree with any of them.”
His lawyer, David Hooper, complained about Thaci’s treatment, saying it was “disgraceful” that he was held in handcuffs outside the court, and saying he intended to seek his conditional release.
Going by the nom de guerre “Snake”, Thaci was the political chief of the rebel KLA, which battled Serb forces for the independence of the southern province in a bitter conflict that claimed more than 13,000 lives and only ended when a NATO air campaign forced Serb forces to withdraw.
Top Serbian military and police officials were later convicted of war crimes in other international courts. But rebel leaders of the KLA have also been accused of revenge attacks on Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanian rivals during and after the war.
After laying down his weapons following the war, Thaci joined politics, becoming the first prime minister in 2008 and winning the presidency in 2016.
Thaci has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and has claimed the international system of justice is “rewriting history” about the conflict.
On Thursday, he said he was stepping down as president to “protect the integrity” of the office.
Former KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi, one of Thaci’s co-defendants, pleaded not guilty to the charges when he made his first appearance at the court on Monday.
“It is not right that I am here, an injustice has been done against me,” said Krasniqi, 69, a former Kosovar politician who was arrested by armed EU police late Wednesday in Pristina.
The other co-defendants are Thaci’s closest political ally Kadri Veseli and key KLA figure Rexhep Selimi.
A number of former KLA chiefs have gone on to dominate politics in Kosovo, with many still viewing Thaci as a liberation hero, although critics see him and others as the face of a corrupt, entrenched political elite.
The charges are, nevertheless, a seismic moment for a young self-declared country that is still struggling with tense relations with Serbia, and lacking international recognition from countries, including Russia, since Pristina unilaterally declared independence in 2008.
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers was set up with European Union backing five years ago, following a 2011 Council of Europe report which named Thaci and others as allegedly being involved in crimes.
Human rights watchdog 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”.