A former Kosovo rebel commander has been brought to justice in The Hague, accused of war crimes.
Salih Mustafa has been accused of murdering and torturing suspected collaborators during Kosovo’s 1998-99 war for independence from Serbia.
Prosecutors say there is indisputable evidence that the former rebel fighter is guilty of torturing at least six people and the murder of another.
Salih Mustafa was arrested a year ago in Kosovo and sent to the Netherlands to stand trial in the EU-backed Kosovo Specialist Chambers.
It will be the first trial heard in court, a branch of Kosovo’s judicial system set up specifically to deal with war crimes charges.
Chief Prosecutor Jack Smith stressed that the accusations were not directed at the people of Kosovo or their struggle for independence.
Mustafa is charged with the war crimes of arbitrary detention, cruel treatment, six cases of torture and the murder of a person at a detention center in Zllash in April 1999.
The victims were accused by Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters of collaborating with Serbs or not supporting the KLA, according to his indictment.
Mustafa has pleaded not guilty to all charges and cursed the victims’ lawyers by leaving the court after the prosecutor’s initial statement.
“We perceive this as a clear disregard and disrespect for the victims,” said lawyer Anni Pues.
Victims have claimed that a number of war crimes were committed when ethnic Albanian rebels united in the Kosovo Liberation Army fought a bloody conflict to break away from Serbia in 1998-99.
Those held at the Mustafa detention center were forced to sleep on the dirty floor of a barn and received inadequate food, water and medical treatment for injuries sustained in brutal beatings, prosecutors say.
A 2011 report by the Council of Europe contained allegations that rebel fighters were dealing with human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and other ethnic Albanians whom they considered to be collaborators.
Pues said the victims have been waiting more than two decades for responsibility for the crimes.
“None of the wounds caused in 1999 have healed,” she said on Wednesday.
Among other former rebel commanders in custody awaiting trial is Kosovo – formerly President Hashim Thaci, who resigned last year to defend himself against war crimes in The Hague.
Most of those who died in the Kosovo war were ethnic Albanians. A 78-day NATO campaign against Serbian troops ended the fighting. KLA fighters are generally considered heroes in their home country.
Several Serbs have been indicted at a former UN war crimes tribunal for their role in atrocities during the Kosovo war.