Salih Mustafa is accused of crimes committed as ethnic Albanian KLA rebels fought to break away from Serbia.
The first case at a special court probing crimes from Kosovo’s 1998-1999 independence conflict is beginning in The Hague with the war crimes trial of a former rebel leader facing charges including murder and torture.
Salih Mustafa is charged with the war crimes of arbitrary detention, cruel treatment, the torture of at least six people and the murder of one person at a detention compound in Zllash, Kosovo, in April 1999. The victims were accused by KLA fighters of collaborating with Serbs or not supporting the KLA, according to his indictment.
His trial on Wednesday opened with Kosovo Specialist Chambers Presiding Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia giving a history of the legal proceedings before the charges against Mustafa were read out.
“I am not guilty of any of the counts brought here before me by this Gestapo office,” Mustafa, 49, said as his trial started, comparing the war crimes court to Nazi Germany’s secret police.
He wore a red T-shirt in court and listened to a simultaneous translation of proceedings through headphones that he held over his left ear.
Mustafa was arrested a year ago in Kosovo and sent to the Netherlands to stand trial at the EU-backed Kosovo Specialist Chambers.
Prosecutors are making an opening statement of up to three hours.
They said Mustafa and his men “brutalised and tortured” fellow ethnic Kosovo Albanians whom they accused of collaborating with Serbs in Zllash, a village east of the capital Pristina.
“These were not enemies of Kosovo, they were not spies,” senior prosecutor Jack Smith told the court in his opening statement.
“Their only crime was to have political views that differed from the KLA and its senior leaders.”
The trial is the first to start at the Hague-based court, which functions under Kosovo law and was set up to deal with allegations of war crimes committed as ethnic Albanian rebels in the Kosovo Liberation Army fought a bloody conflict to break away from Serbia.
It was established six years ago, following a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, a human rights body, that included allegations that KLA fighters trafficked human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and fellow ethnic Albanians they considered collaborators.
Among other former rebel commanders in custody awaiting trial are former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who resigned from office last year to defend himself against war crimes charges in The Hague.
The court is mandated to investigate and prosecute allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo, or linked to the Kosovo conflict, from 1998-2000.
Most of the people who died in the Kosovo war were ethnic Albanians. A 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbian troops ended the fighting.
Several Serbs have been prosecuted at a former UN war crimes tribunal for their roles in atrocities in the Kosovo war.
Mustafa is charged with personal involvement in arbitrary detention, cruel treatment and torture and with command responsibility for the murder. He also is charged with involvement in all four crimes as a member of a “joint criminal enterprise”.
The court’s activities are highly sensitive as former rebel commanders still dominate political life in Kosovo and are treated by many as heroes.
“They can condemn Mustafa and the others 100 times, but for me they are the heroes who had the courage to stand up against Serbia,” Adem Idrizi, 65, a pensioner from Pristina, told AFP.
Others trusted the tribunal to do its job.
“I believe that the international judges will establish the truth. I only believe the evidence,” said law graduate Blerta Hyseni, 24.
International tensions over Kosovo remain to this day, with the United States and most of the West recognising Kosovo, while Belgrade and its allies Russia and China do not.