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Chicago Tribune, May 01, 2007
U.S. praises indicted former Kosovo P.M.

THE HAGUE -- The day after Ramush Haradinaj resigned as Kosovo's prime minister, Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised him as a patriot and a statesman.

"I want to publicly salute him for his personal courage," said Biden (D-Del.), who described Haradinaj as a young man who looked like he could lift an ox out of a ditch.

The U.S. State Department, French foreign ministry and United Nations also were generous in their praise for the 38-year-old political leader—a nice send-off for a fellow who had just been indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in the abduction, torture and murder of 40 of his countrymen and women.

Colliding images of war criminal and peacemaker have made Haradinaj's trial a source of deepening acrimony between UN prosecutors, who claim the ex-prime minister is a vicious killer responsible for acts of unspeakable brutality, and UN diplomats, who describe him as a key partner in securing a stable Kosovo.

The trial, which began in March in The Hague, the Dutch capital, comes at a crucial time in Kosovo's history. The UN is considering a plan for the supervised independence of the province, home to nearly 2 million ethnic Albanians. Serbia says it will never relinquish sovereignty.

In her opening statement to the court, chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte acknowledged the complications.

"It is a prosecution, frankly, that some did not want to see brought, and that few supported by their cooperation at both the international and local level," she said.

By turns charming and violent, charismatic and cruel, a warlord with a law degree, Haradinaj is a complex man with friends in high and low places.

He was born in the village of Glodjane in western Kosovo, and after graduating from high school and serving a hitch in the Yugoslav army, he followed the path of thousands of other young Albanian men and migrated to Switzerland to earn money and escape Serb repression. He worked as a security guard, nightclub bouncer and construction worker.

He also became active in the swirl of ethnic Albanian resistance politics that had its base in Switzerland. Returning permanently to Kosovo in the spring of 1998, he took up arms with the newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army.

His leadership skills and ruthlessness became apparent quickly as he and his men established total control over the Dukagjin Zone, which included the important market towns of Pec, Decani and Djakovica. Serbs living in the area were terrorized into fleeing; Albanians who supported rival political factions or who tried to help their Serb neighbors also found themselves targeted by Haradinaj's men.

After NATO's 1999 air strikes liberated Kosovo from Belgrade's rule, Haradinaj founded a political party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo. He also picked up a law degree at Pristina University.

During the war and in its aftermath, the guerrilla commander-turned-politician established good relations with NATO commanders and UN officials. Soren Jessen-Petersen, who headed the UN mission in Kosovo from 2004 until 2006, praised Haradinaj for his "dynamic leadership" and "vision."

Haradinaj's party finished third in the 2004 elections and joined the ruling coalition led by Ibrahim Rugova, then the provisional government's president and Kosovo's gentle elder statesman. Haradinaj was named prime minister.

Three months later, The Hague indictments were handed down. Haradinaj and his two top lieutenants, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj, were charged with war crimes in connection with the slayings of 40 people. The victims were mainly Serbs and Roma. Twenty-eight were last seen alive in Haradinaj's custody; the bodies of 14 were recovered from a canal near Haradinaj's headquarters.

According to the indictment, most of the hands-on violence was carried out by Balaj and Brahimaj, but the document stresses that nothing in the Dukagjin Zone happened without Haradinaj's direct knowledge and approval.

Balaj, who is described as Haradinaj's "right-hand man," is alleged to have been a particularly sadistic individual. He is accused of cutting off victims' ears and noses, slashing them with knives and pouring salt into the wounds before sewing them up with a needle and thread. On one occasion, according to the indictment, he bound three prisoners with barbed wire and dragged them behind his vehicle.

From the beginning, the prosecution's case has been shadowed by interference and intimidation. One of its key witnesses, a militia commander named Tahir Zemaj, was shot dead during the investigation. Two weeks before the start of the trial, another likely witness, Kujtim Berisha, was hit by a car and killed in neighboring Montenegro.

At least three other witnesses also have "disappeared," according to Kosovo news reports.

Olga Kavran, a spokeswoman for Del Ponte, declined to confirm or deny the number, but she said the intimidation of witnesses "continues to be a concern."

With few exceptions, war crimes defendants remain in jail from the moment of their capture or surrender until their case is decided. But Haradinaj, after entering a not guilty plea in March 2005, was allowed to return to Kosovo and—to the astonishment of some observers—allowed to resume his political activities.

Del Ponte vehemently opposed the release, arguing that the sight of Haradinaj hobnobbing with top UN officials and other Western diplomats in Kosovo would have a "chilling effect" on witnesses waiting to testify.

And so it has. "We have had indications about witnesses who will change their minds," Kavran said.

A spokesman for UNMIK, the UN authority in Kosovo, dismissed the prosecutors' complaints as "vague unarticulated suspicion."

Last month, right before his departure to The Hague for the start of the trial, Haradinaj was set to have a high-profile meeting with Joachim Ruecker, the new head of UNMIK. A joint news conference and photo op also were on the schedule.

An irate phone call from Del Ponte's office to Ruecker's office resulted in the cancellation of the news conference and photo op, but the meeting went ahead as scheduled.

"Mr. Haradinaj is still a party leader, and his party is still part of the ruling coalition. A person is innocent until proved otherwise and Mr. Ruecker met with Mr. Haradinaj out of courtesy," said UNMIK spokesman Russell Geekie in an-e-mailed reply.

The reason Kosovo's international overlords are so deferential to a suspected war criminal is not hard to understand, according to Avni Zogiani, director of Cohu, an anti-corruption watchdog in Pristina.

"He made their work easier. Whatever the international community asked of him, he would deliver," Zogiani said. "He never acted as a representative of the people of Kosovo. He acted as the representative of the international community."

In the courtroom, Haradinaj is represented by Ben Emmerson, a highflying London human-rights lawyer who works for the same law firm as Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In Kosovo, posters backing Haradinaj have sprouted everywhere. "With Ramush," they say.

All of this is financed by the Committee for the Defense of Ramush Haradinaj, which claims a war chest of about $10 million.

Some Western intelligence sources believe the money comes from organized crime activities that are rampant in Kosovo, and from public funds that have been illegally diverted. Two of the fund's top managers were arrested by international police last month on charges of money laundering.

Geekie, the UNMIK spokesman, said there was no evidence of Haradinaj's alleged links to organized crime.

The trial in The Hague is a cumbersome business that is expected to last about a year. An unusually large number of witnesses—about a third of the 99 the prosecution plans to present—will testify in closed session for security reasons. Their identities will be kept secret from the public, but the accused will know who they are.

During a recent session, presiding Judge Alphons Orie gently reminded a nervous witness that it was better to tell the court when he was afraid to answer a question rather than feign a memory lapse. The session then moved behind closed doors.

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