Judges from the Kosovo Tribunal have sentenced a former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander who ran a prison used for torture during the 1998/99 independence conflict with Serbia.
In its first-ever war crimes verdict, the court on Friday sentenced Salih Mustafa to 26 years in prison for war crimes, including murder and torture in a detention center where prisoners, mostly Kosovo Albanians, who were political opponents of the KLA, were beaten and tortured on a daily basis.
Presiding Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia said that the verdict was a “milestone” for the court established in 2015 and “represents this tribunal’s first war crimes verdict.”
“The panel sentenced you to a single sentence of 26 years in prison,” she told Mustafa, who was wearing a gray suit and blue tie and stood indiscriminate during the verdict.
Judges found that Mustafa was personally involved in beating and torturing at least two prisoners and allowed his subordinates to mistreat another so severely that the prisoner later died.
Mustafa, 50, had denied the allegations and his lawyers accused prosecution witnesses of making up their stories. Both sides have 30 days to appeal the decision.
The Kosovo Special Chambers, a Kosovan court based in the Netherlands and staffed by international judges and lawyers, were set up to deal with cases under Kosovo law against former KLA fighters.
The court is separate from the UN Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which was also located in The Hague, where it tried and convicted Serbian officials for war crimes committed in the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
It is assumed that more than 13,000 people died during the 1998-99 uprising in Kosovo, when Kosovo was still part of Serbia under then-President Slobodan Milosevic.
The fighting ended after NATO air raids on Serbian forces, and Kosovo declared independence in 2008 — although Belgrade does not recognize its independence.
The verdict came at a sensitive time, as ethnic tensions in Kosovo have increased again almost a quarter of a century after the war. Attackers exchanged gunfire with police over the weekend.
“Burned, electrocuted, stabbed”
The judges found that Mustafa, who was arrested in 2020 while working as an adviser in the Kosovo Ministry of Defence, led a KLA unit in the Zllash region east of Pristina during the war.
His group kept at least six people, who were accused of working with Serbs, “in barns suitable for animals under deplorable conditions, in which cattle droppings lay around,” according to Veldt-Foglia.
Prisoners were forced to sleep in puddles, they were denied food for two or three days, and when they asked for water, “the KLA soldiers urinated on them and said, ‘Here is water for you. ‘”
“The detainees were beaten, beaten with baseball bats, iron and rubber batons, they were burned, electrocuted, stabbed, kicked, punched and beaten,” the judge said.
Mustafa personally interrogated two detainees, subjected one of them to a mock execution and beat him “all over his body.” He was also present when his soldiers abused other prisoners.
One victim was in near death condition and was denied medical care.
He was later found dead. Judges said the mistreatment and lack of help contributed to his death. He also had gunshot wounds, which could have been caused either by KLA rebels or advancing Serbian troops.
But Mustafa’s action “was virtually tantamount to a decision to kill the murder victim, as he was denied any chance of survival at that point,” said the judge.
“Climate of fear and intimidation”
The judge said she hoped the verdict would “promote” “reconciliation” in Kosovo.
However, she noted that there was a “climate of fear and intimidation” surrounding the process. The court arrested two KLA veterans last year for intimidating witnesses.
Following a 2010 Council of Europe report on alleged atrocities committed by the KLA forces, Kosovo reluctantly passed a law allowing the Court to be established.
These went unpunished, although a number of Serbs were convicted by other courts for the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s.