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Kosovo war crimes suspect is no pariah

July 12, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

PRISTINA, SERBIA — On roads leading into this city, capital of Kosovo, a popular billboard says simply, "With Ramush." In their hearts, at least, most ethnic Albanians are with Ramush Haradinaj, the former prime minister of the breakaway province and onetime rebel commander on trial for crimes against humanity.

"He is a good guy, and innocent," said Besart Halili, 19, a journalism student at the University of Pristina.

It's the same everywhere in the former Yugoslavia: A suspect hauled before the United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague is admired by members of his ethnic community for the battle he fought in their name.

What is unusual is the special treatment that Haradinaj has received from top officials in the very organization that is seeking to bring him to justice.

How often does a war crimes suspect show up at tribunal with a letter of recommendation from the top U.N. official in the area where the suspect operated?

And how often is the suspect allowed to remain free until the trial starts, heading off to The Hague after a farewell party with U.N. officials in attendance?

Haradinaj is the most senior ethnic Albanian to be prosecuted for war crimes allegedly committed during the 1998 rebellion against Serbian forces in Kosovo. NATO unleashed airstrikes the following year to stop the Serbs' crackdown on the ethnic Albanian separatists, and the restive region has since been administered by the U.N.

The Serbian forces loyal to the late Slobodan Milosevic reportedly committed far more atrocities in the conflict, but international prosecutors and human rights organizations maintain that elements of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army were also guilty of war crimes.

The support that Haradinaj, 38, enjoys among U.N. and U.S. officials owes to a couple of cold realities. In the postwar recovery of a society, outside enforcers often find it necessary to enlist the former combatants to help hold the peace. U.N. and U.S. officials say Haradinaj commands respect and authority precisely because of his role as a feared fighter, making him a key to maintaining stability as Kosovo moves toward independence.

It is also widely believed that Haradinaj, a former nightclub bouncer with a law degree, is favored by U.S. allies because of logistical assistance he reportedly provided to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in its short air war in 1999.

And though he now stands accused of murdering Serb civilians nine years ago, as prime minister he aided U.N. efforts to protect the remaining Serbian minority in Kosovo, according to several international monitors.

Western officials in Kosovo "developed an appetite" for prime ministers from the ranks of the former guerrilla armies because they "can offer security guarantees," the International Crisis Group think tank noted in a recent report.

But the close relationship raises questions about whether an already complex trial can be fair, and, more broadly, whether the United Nations can be seen as an honest broker by all Albanians and Serbs.

In a 37-count indictment, Haradinaj and his KLA unit are accused of a "widespread and systematic" campaign to intimidate, abduct, rape and kill Serb civilians and Albanians who refused to cooperate. His "Black Eagles" killed at least 40 people between March and September 1998 and expelled thousands more, the indictment says.

One of Haradinaj's lieutenants and codefendants, Idriz Balaj, is accused of some of the more grisly deeds, including allegedly slicing off the ears and noses of victims who were still alive and, in one case, wrapping three men in barbed wire, hammering the spikes into their flesh and dragging them with his car.

The indictment holds Haradinaj responsible because as commander for the western region of Kosovo he would have ordered or been aware of his men's actions.

Many of the victims were elderly Serbian villagers whose bodies were later found with broken bones and Albanians whom Haradinaj and his men suspected of collaborating with the Serbs -- or with a rival Albanian faction.

The indictment became public in March 2005, about three months after Haradinaj was elected prime minister of Kosovo. He resigned, held a news conference to declare his innocence and marched off to The Hague.

"I have been called upon to make yet another sacrifice," he said before leaving Pristina.

At The Hague, Haradinaj was granted provisional release, a highly unusual status in war-crime prosecutions involving the former Yugoslavia, and remained free for two years, until the trial started in March.

Among the factors the court considered in allowing Haradinaj's release were the references he presented, including a letter from Soren Jessen-Petersen, who served as U.N. governor of Kosovo from 2004 to 2006. He described Haradinaj as a man of "dynamic leadership, strong commitment and vision."

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