As the only people accused of crimes in Kosovo in 1998, the three KLA members in the dock are “scapegoats” and the prosecution is using them to “meet the wishes of Belgrade,” says the first accused, Fatmir Limaj, in his opening statement.

Fatmir Limaj in the courtroomFatmir Limaj in the courtroom

“Who is on trial here – criminals or victims?” Fatmir Limaj rhetorically asked the Trial Chamber today. He is the first accused at the just-opened trial of former commanders and members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). They are charged with crimes against Serb and Albanian prisoners in the Lapusnik camp between May and July 1998.

Disputing the claim made yesterday in the prosecutor’s opening statement that two indictments have been issued for crimes committed by Serbian forces in Kosovo--one against Milosevic and his closest associates (Milutinovic, Sainovic and Ojdanic) and the other against four Serbian army and police generals--Limaj noted that the indictments covered the period between January and July 1999, while no one has been indicted for the crimes committed in 1998. According to the data gathered by the non-governmental organizations that Limaj quoted, about 3,000 people were killed in Kosovo that year.

Proseuctors, continued Limaj, “closed their eyes before those crimes and exonerated the Serbian forces, while on the other hand they tried at all costs to accuse the KLA for events in 1998.” In his opinion, it is “an attempt to revise the history of Kosovo” on the basis of information supplied to the prosecution by Serbian authorities and the testimony of members and commanders in the Serbian forces who in fact committed the crimes in Kosovo and who will not “come to The Hague to present evidence against the victims.” As the only people charged with the Kosovo crimes in 1998, the three KLA members in the dock are, in Limaj’s opinion, “scapegoats,” and the prosecution is using them to “meet the wishes of Belgrade.”

Although his defense counsel indicated that the accused’s opening statement would last between 20 and 30 minutes, Limaj spoke for a two full hours about his difficult childhood, his student years marked by police repression and human rights violations, his year-long exile in Switzerland, his return to Kosovo in March 1998 and his joining the KLA.

Limaj’s claim that in May 1998, there was a total of about 200 KLA members in all of Kosovo, while his unit, headquartered in Klecka, had only seven fighters, might be important for his defense. According to the indictment, Limaj was the regional KLA commander in the Lapusnik area from May until the end of July 1998, his headquarters was in Klecka, and he had under his command the unit that secured the camp for Serbian and Albanian civilians. Although the prosecutor showed during his opening statement a video recording made in June 1998 in which Limaj spoke about the KLA as “an organized military and political structure,” the accused claimed today that at the time relevant to the indictment, the KLA was not “organized in a military manner,” that there merely existed “units in various villages,” and that the commanders were responsible only for their local areas.

Since the accused did not make this statement under oath and was not subjected to cross-examination by the prosecution or judges, the defense will have to present evidence to corroborate Limaj’s claims if they are to be given any weight as evidence.

The defense of Isak Musliu will present its opening statement tomorrow, while the defense of the third accused, Haradin Bala, will present its opening statement at the beginning of the defense case.