Capital Prishtina
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 377 (Monaco); 381 (Serbia)
Mobile Codes 44
Currency Euro
Land Area 10,908 sq km
Population 1.8 million
Language Albanian, Serbian, Turkish
Major Religions Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism

The War Crimes Case against Fatmir Limaj and Lingering Problems for Kosovo’s Transitional Justice

By Anita McKinna

The recent arrest of former KLA commander turned politician Fatmir Limaj under suspicion of committing war crimes, and the death of a protected witness in the case, illuminate two deficiencies that have plagued Kosovo’s post-war justice system: MP immunity and a lack of adequate witness protection.

An Untouchable?

After being acquitted of war crimes by the ICTY in 2005 and having so far survived EULEX investigations into allegations of corruption without being charged, many thought that Fatmir Limaj was untouchable.

Then, new allegations of war crimes emerged in March and eight of Limaj’s former KLA comrades were arrested, according to an EULEX press release, ‘on the grounded suspicion of killings, torture and other offenses against Kosovo Albanian and Serb civilians’ in the detention center of Kleçkë/Klečka during the war. Nevertheless, Limaj avoided arrest. He was questioned at the time but released over confusion as to whether members of the Kosovo Assembly were granted immunity from such charges.

Free the ‘War Hero’

These arrests sparked protests against EULEX, not only from members of the public but also from members of the government. Support for those involved was equaled by anger against EULEX for initiating the arrests. Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi described the arrests as an attempt to de-legitimize Kosovo’s statehood, and to blacken the name of the KLA, according to the EU Observer. Protests flared up in 26 centers in Kosovo, with chants of ‘Free Limaj, Limaj the war hero,’ and ‘EULEX go home.’

Yet while Limaj expressed a wish to give up his right to immunity and face justice with his fellow accused, he left the final decision up to the Assembly to clarify. EULEX was powerless to move forward with the case while such confusion existed.

The issue was eventually referred to the Constitutional Court, which ruled on September 21st that MPs, the President, the Prime Minister and cabinet members ‘do not enjoy immunity from prosecution for actions and decisions taken outside the scope of their responsibilities,’ recounted Balkan Insight.

On the same day, Limaj was questioned by the Special Prosecution for five hours on suspicion of involvement in organized crime, money laundering, extortion and misuse of his official duty. The next day he was sentenced to one month’s house arrest by the Pristina District Court in relation to the war crimes case.

An Important Step

The Constitutional Court’s clarification of the issue of MP immunity represents an important step forward for Kosovo’s justice system and for Kosovo more generally: indeed, this immunity had come to be seen by many not simply as an added perk of being a member of the Assembly, but as in fact a primary reason for seeking such a position in the first place.

In its evaluation of the 2010 elections, the European Commission expressed concern (.PDF) about several individuals, including many on Limaj’s PDK party lists who were under suspicion of having committed war crimes and that ‘individuals see election to the assembly as protection against indictment.’ As well as the implications for individuals within Kosovo’s political establishment, this decision was an important message to the people of Kosovo that no-one was above the law. It also marks a victory for transitional justice in Kosovo, in a political landscape that is still dominated by former KLA members.

No Time To Celebrate

However, supporters of justice did not celebrate this development for long as, a week after the Constitutional Court’s decision Agim Zogaj – a key witness in the case against Limaj – was found dead in Germany. According to documents leaked to Prishtina daily Koha Ditore in June, Zogaj testified that Limaj had ordered him to kill prisoner Blerim Kuçi (now Mayor of Suharekë/Suva Reka) in the Kleçkë/Klečka camp. German officials ruled the suspicious death a suicide, though members of his family blame EULEX for its failure to protect him, reported Balkan Insight.

Nevertheless, regardless of the circumstances of the death of Agim Zogaj, the fact that he died while under protected witness status less than a week after Fatmir Limaj was detained reinforces a message that has been received clearly by the people of Kosovo since the end of the war: that it is just not safe to testify against members of the Kosovo political elite.

Indeed, Limaj’s first trial in The Hague was blighted by witness intimidation, with Beqa Beqaj sentenced to four months in prison after intimidating witnesses connected with the trial. The first trial of former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj also involved numerous allegations of witness intimidation (as has been noted officially by the ICTY).

It is clear that this most recent incident will set back not only the case against Limaj, but will also do nothing to reassure potential witnesses in the future. It has already been reported in Serbia’s B92 that another potential witness now refuses to testify against Limaj, for safety reasons. Regardless of the outcome of this case against Limaj, these recent events indicate that while progress is being made in the development of Kosovo’s justice system, there is still a long way to go.

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