Kosovo rebel says war crimes 'fabricated' as trial opens

Publicado: 21/02/2023

The Hague (AFP) -

A former Kosovo rebel commander has pleaded not guilty to war crimes, calling the charges 'fabricated' as his trial opened on Tuesday for alleged abuses and murder in 1999 during Pristina's independence struggle.

Prosecutors say Pjeter Shala, 59, also known as 'Commander Wolf', was a local military leader in western Kosovo during the tiny country's 1998-99 independence conflict when separatist KLA rebels fought forces loyal to then Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Shala faces four war crimes charges -- torture, arbitrary detention and cruel treatment of at least 18 civilian detainees accused of working as spies or collaborating with opposing Serb forces in mid-1999, as well as one charge of murder.

'I don't accept anything. It's fabricated, all fabricated,' Shala said after presiding judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia asked him to enter a plea.

'Fully not guilty,' added Shala, who was wearing a black suit, white shirt and purple tie.

Prosecutors say Shala was part of a 'small group of KLA soldiers' who severely mistreated detainees at a metal factory serving as a KLA headquarters in Kukes, northeastern Albania.

'The detainees were subjected to severe and repeated abuse, torture, and in one case murder,' said Alex Whiting, chief prosecutor in the case.

Shala 'participated in repeated and severe beatings... including using iron bars and sharp objects,' he said.

'As a result, victims were covered in blood, suffered broken bones and were unable to walk,' Whiting told the judges.

In another case, Shala and other KLA members are accused of shooting a detainee in June 1999.

The victim was beaten and shot in the leg 'which caused him to bleed to death,' Whiting said.

'It was a senseless waste of a human life,' said Simon Laws, a lawyer representing victims in the case.

- Witness intimidation -

Shala was arrested in Belgium in March 2021 and transferred to The Hague.

He is being tried before the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, a Kosovan court located in the city to prosecute mainly former KLA fighters for war crimes.

It is financed by the European Union and has international judges.

The court was set up after a 2011 Council of Europe report naming KLA fighters as allegedly being involved in crimes.

The report also said there was evidence KLA guerrillas had been part of a human organ harvesting and trafficking network operating in Albania, although an EU task force later said there was no evidence for the claims.

Since its establishment in 2017, the court has investigated several former KLA commanders for possible war crimes.

They include former KLA political commander Hashim Thaci, who dominated Kosovo's politics after it declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and rose to become president of the tiny country.

Thaci resigned in 2020 to face war crimes and crimes against humanity charges.

His lawyers have vehemently denied any claims of organ trafficking.

In December, the Kosovo tribunal handed down its first verdict, a 26-year jail term for former rebel commander Salih Mustafa, who ran a torture centre.

Prosecutors however told the judges that witness intimidation continued in many of the cases brought before the court.

Witness intimidation was 'real, serious, pervasive and continued to shape the trial,' Whiting said.

Earlier this month the court slashed the prison sentences of two former KLA members convicted of intimidating war witnesses by three months, shortening them to four years and three months each.

Shala's defence is expected to make its opening statement on Wednesday, when the accused will be given a chance to speak to the judges.

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