‘A Hero Returns’: How Freed War Criminals Are Glorified In Kosovo – Analysis


There is no legal obstacle to war criminals holding public office in Kosovo after they serve their sentences, and senior officials have repeatedly given them jobs, attended ceremonies in their honour and praised them as role models.

By Milica Radovanovic*

“A war hero has returned to freedom.”

This was how Kosovo’s then prime minister described the release from prison on probation of a convicted war criminal at the beginning of last year.

Just a few days after he was freed, the war criminal was then appointed as a political adviser to the prime minister.

Several months later, an Anti-Corruption Agency report revealed that Kosovo’s president had also hired a convicted war criminal as his adviser.

Less attention was given to the fact that there were two more war crime convicts serving as directors of government agencies in 2019.

But it all demonstrated how in Kosovo, after war crime convicts serve their sentences, they enjoy the same rights as any other citizen. There is no obstacle to them being appointed to official positions or standing for elected office if the court that sentenced them did not forbid this in its final verdict.

“There are no constitutional or legal restrictions because the Kosovo constitution states that human rights and freedoms can be only denied by a decision from the relevant court,” explained Enver Hasani, a professor of law and former Constitutional Court judge.

As well as appointing war crime convicts to public positions, senior officials have praised them as heroes of the nation, attended ceremonies in their honour and posed for photographs with them.

Bekim Blakaj, executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Kosovo, argued that war criminals have the right to continue their lives once they are released, but should not be appointed to public positions.

“Although they have served their sentences, their deeds will in no way be nullified or forgotten, especially by the victims, but they should not be forgotten by society either. Therefore, regardless of the fact that someone who has been convicted of war crimes has served his sentence, and maybe even apologised and publicly expressed regret for what he did, he should not hold a public position,” said Blakaj.

“In most cases in our region, not only in Kosovo, they have never even shown remorse, and have never apologised to the victims,” he added.

‘A special contribution to the war’

On January 25, 2019, convicted war criminal Sylejman Selimi, known during the war as the Sultan, was released on probation. Selimi had been found guilty of the physical abuse, torture and inhumane treatment of civilian prisoners held at a Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA detention centre in Likovac/Likoc. He got seven years in prison.

On the day of his release on probation, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said: “Kosovo is better and safer with the living hero Sylejman Selimi at liberty.” The leader of the then opposition Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK party, Isa Mustafa, also expressed satisfaction at Selimi’s release, saying that he had made a “special contribution to the war and to the peace”.

The following day, in the village of Buroja/Brocna in the Skenderaj/Srbica municipality, former KLA commanders gathered to celebrate Selimi’s release, with President Thaci and the speaker of parliament, Kadri Veseli, among them. Another war criminal was also there – Fadil Demaku, who was convicted in the same case as Selimi.

Kosovo’s then Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj took to Facebook to describe Selimi as a “hero”. A few days later, Selimi was appointed as a political adviser to Haradinaj.

He was also invited to visit the Ministry of Defence, and the mayor of Skenderaj/Srbica received him in his office, praising Selimi’s “contribution to the liberation war”.

Marigona Shabiu, executive director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights NGO in Kosovo, said that it is rare to hear criticism of convicted war criminals’ involvement in public life in the country.

When Selimi was appointed, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights Kosovo issued a joint statement with the Youth Initiative for Human Rights Serbia saying that “war criminals have no place in government”.

“When we reacted, the media picked that up, and asked the prime minister why he did that, but he continued defending his action and again he used that opportunity to praise him [Selimi] as a hero of freedom, as someone who has actually served his sentence so now he is free and he can do whatever he wants even if it is high-level political position in the office of the prime minister,” Shabiu said.

The US ambassador to Pristina, Philip Kosnett, came out in support of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights’ criticism, saying that “leaders of all parties should stop supporting such individuals”.

“What message does Kosovo send to the world when it nominates a convicted war criminal to represent it as Ambassador? Does this show respect for Rule of Law?” Kosnett later asked on Twitter.

In June 2019, Haradinaj terminated Selimi’s employment – at Selimi’s request, he said. Selimi confirmed the dismissal, also saying that he was offered the position of ambassador to Albania, but turned it down. BIRN could not reach Selimi for a comment.

Two medals for convicted torturer

While Selimi’s appointment attracted a lot of attention, ultimately resulting in his dismissal, out of the public eye, another war criminal was almost simultaneously hired to another office of state. In an Anti-Corruption Agency report on officials’ asset declarations, it was found that the Kosovo President Hashim Thaci had hired Rrustem Mustafa as his advisor.

In 2013, Rrustem Mustafa, who had been the KLA’s commander in its ‘Llapi Operational Zone’ during the conflict, when he was known by the nickname Remi, was imprisoned for four years for committing a war crime against civilians.

The court found that Mustafa “ordered and participated in the beating and torture of Kosovo Albanian civilians, illegally detained in the detention centre located at Llapashtica in attempt to force those detained to confess to acts of disloyalty to the KLA”.

By the time his conviction was confirmed by the appeals court, he was an MP in the Kosovo Assembly. In November 2015, he resigned. But because the time he spent in detention on remand was credited towards his sentence, by the middle of 2016, he was freed.

Since then, he has been decorated twice. President Hashim Thaci gave him a presidential medal on the tenth anniversary of Kosovo’s independence in 2018 for his “valuable contribution to freedom and independence”, while Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj gave him the Gjergj Kastrioti-Skënderbeu medal the following year.

Mustafa is also a member of the steering committee of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, and ran as a party candidate in the October 2019 parliamentary elections, although he did not get enough votes to get into the Kosovo Assembly.

The Independent Oversight Board for the Civil Service of Kosovo told BIRN that “advisers to the president and the prime Minister, pursuant to Article 4, paragraph 1 of Law no. 03 / L-149 on the Civil Service of the Republic of Kosovo, are not considered civil servants” and so it was not able to assess such appointments.

Mustafa’s own stance was clear: “My appointment is in accordance with the laws and rules of Republic of Kosovo,” he told BIRN.

The Kosovo president’s chief of staff did not respond to BIRN’s questions about the appointment of Mustafa, the president’s attendance at memorial events honouring war criminals, and the medals that they have been given.

Prime minister appoints uncle to state job

While the cases of Selimi and Mustafa prompted reactions, it escaped the public’s noticed that there was one more war criminal in an official position, which he had held since the end of 2018.

There is often a misconception that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY in The Hague convicted only one defendant from Kosovo – Haradin Bala.

But Lahi Brahimaj, also known as ‘Maxhup’ or ‘Gypsy’, was also convicted by the ICTY. In 2008, he was imprisoned for six years for the cruel treatment and torture of civilians at KLA headquarters in Jablanica while his co-defendant (and nephew), Ramush Haradinaj, was acquitted.

The ICTY’s appeals chamber ordered a partial retrial for Brahimaj on the counts on which he had been previously acquitted, and in 2012 he was cleared again and returned to Kosovo a free man.

Brahimaj ran in parliamentary elections in 2014 and was elected as an MP for his nephew Haradinaj’s political party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK. He also participated in the 2017 and 2019 parliamentary elections in Kosovo, but both times failed to get enough votes to enter the legislature.

Nevertheless, Brahimaj was not left out in the cold. In 2018, he was appointed as interim director of administration with the Kosovo Food and Veterinary Agency, controlled by the office of the prime minister, who at that time happen to be Haradinaj.

The Independent Oversight Board for the Civil Service of Kosovo told BIRN that it “supervised” the process of Brahimaj getting the job in 2018, and “it was determined that from the administrative aspect, the recruitment procedure for this position, i.e. his appointment, was done in accordance with the legislation in Kosovo”.

Brahimaj did not respond to BIRN’s calls or messages.

In July 2019, Haradinaj resigned as prime minister after being summoned for questioning by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague, which is probing wartime and post-war crimes in Kosovo.

But before leaving office, Haradinaj appointed Bedri Zyberaj, another war crime convict, as chief executive of Kosovo’s state archive agency.

The District Court in Prizren found Zyberaj guilty in 2006 of committing a war crime against civilians. It determined he had taken part unlawfully detaining “several people suspected of collaborating with the Serbian authorities”.

The detainees were “held in inhumane conditions, subjected to beatings, torture and immense suffering”, said a Humanitarian Law Centre report.

In 2009, Zyberaj was released from prison after serving two-thirds of his six-year sentence.

Later that year, he started working at the state-owned Post and Telecommunication of Kosovo, PTK as a media and public relations consultant. In 2014, he then became the director of the Pjeter Bogdani National Library of Kosovo.

His biography on the National Library website lists his achievements but omits to state that he was convicted of a war crime. The Independent Oversight Board for the Civil Service of Kosovo said it did not supervise Zyberaj’s appointment or receive any complaint about it.

Zyberaj told BIRN that he does not see anything wrong with being employed by public institutions.

“No, I do not consider it a problem since I did not have a final decision from the court to limit my involvement in institutions. That story ended in 2009,” he said.

‘Widespread acceptable of war criminals as heroes’

Kosovo officials have participated in several memorial events that paid tribute to deceased war criminals. One of them, in January 2018, was even held at the Kosovo Assembly.

MPs observed a minute’s silence to commemorate the death of Haradin Bala, who was convicted by the ICTY in 2005 of torture, cruel treatment and murder and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment.

The UN court found that Bala personally mistreated three prisoners, played a role in the maintenance and enforcement of the inhumane conditions at the KLA’s Lapusnik/Llapushnik prison camp, aided the torture of one prisoner and with one or perhaps two other KLA guards, murdered nine prisoners from the prison camp in the Berishe Mountains in July 1998.

At the memorial event, Milaim Zeka, an MP from the then governing coalition party NISMA (Initiative for Kosovo), described Bala as a hero.

“All people in the world honour their values, their people, their heroes. Last night, a great man passed away, a man who has made a great contribution to this country, this nation,” Zeka said.

A year later, there was another memorial ceremony dedicated to Bala, held at the Community Centre in the town of Drenas on the anniversary of his death. The ceremony was attended by the mayor of Drenas, Ramiz Lladrovci, and Kosovo’s deputy prime minister at the time, Fatmir Limaj, who was tried alongside Bala in The Hague, but acquitted. Lladrovci later promised that there “will soon be a street named after Haradin Bala as a sign of respect for him”.

Another war crimes convict who died, Ejup Runjeva, was also commemorated by senior officials in Kosovo.

In 2008, Runjeva, also known as Commander Era, was sentenced to six years in prison for participating in the abduction and illegal detention of Kosovo Albanian civilians who were held at facilities established and controlled by the KLA.

When Runjeva died in April 2013, Hashim Thaci, who at that time was Kosovo’s prime minister, expressed his condolences in the name of the government to Runjeva’s family, stating that his “life and patriotic activity is an example of how to work and fight for freedom and for a bright future for the homeland”.

For the following two years, Thaci participated in a memorial event on the anniversary of Runjeva’s death. At the commemoration in April 2019, he said in his speech that Runjeva was “the model of a freedom fighter” and was wrongly convicted.

“Even though he was arrested and unjustly condemned, his ideals, aspirations and cause won,” Thaci said.

War crime convicts are often glorified in Kosovo, said Marigona Shabiu of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights Kosovo.

“In the past we have had protests organised by war veterans’ organisations against certain verdicts from domestic courts, which really shows the great support that these people have in public, and this reluctance to accept their crimes and to see them as war criminals, as people who have committed crimes against civilians,” Shabiu explained.

“From we have seen, we can say that generally there is widespread acceptance of these people as heroes in our society,” she said.

War crimes convicts do not only play roles in public life in Kosovo. They are also prominent in political circles in Serbia, as a Youth Initiative for Human Rights Serbia report highlighted in 2017.

The Kosovo and Serbian branches of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights often issue joint statements and work on joint campaigns, like the ‘Not My Hero’ campaign against the glorification of war criminals, to show that young people from both countries can come together to voice their collective condemnation of such practices.

“We wanted to act together in order to send a stronger message, to be unified and to show our institutions we as the younger generation do not accept these things, we do not accept your actions when it comes to glorifying and praising war criminals,” explained Shabiu.

Blakaj argued that it is “extremely dangerous” to send a message to young people that someone who commits a war crime can be appointed to an official position.

“By enabling sentenced war criminals to hold public positions, state institutions intentionally undermine and neglect the rights and feelings of victims,” he said.

The glorification of war criminals also presents a huge obstacle to the process of post-war reconciliation and of coming to terms with the past, added Blakaj.

“Our society is very divided on ethnic grounds, and when we talk about reconciliation, it is very difficult for someone to reconcile with anyone if they see that those who inflicted evil, pain and suffering hold some public position and are seen by some as heroes,” he said.

BIRN asked for comments from the Kosovo government, the Ministry of Justice, the president of the Kosovo Assembly and the Ombudsperson about war criminals being appointed to roles in state institutions, being decorated with state medals, and being honoured by events attended by state officials.

No replies were received by the time of publication.

Milica Radovanovic is a journalist at the Crno beli svet website in North Mitrovica, Kosovo. This article was produced as part of BIRN’s Balkan Transitional Justice grant scheme, supported by the European Commission.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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