PRISTINA -- The first case at a special court investigating alleged atrocities by ethnic Albanian separatists during the 1998-99 Kosovo War has begun in the Netherlands, with prosecutors saying they have irrefutable evidence of a former rebel commander's guilt in murdering and torturing suspected collaborators.
Salih Mustafa, a commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), faces charges of murder, torture, cruel treatment, and arbitrary detention allegedly committed in April 1999 against prisoners held in the village of Zllash, east of the capital, Pristina.
Prosecutors said in their opening statement that Mustafa and his men "brutalized and tortured" fellow ethnic Kosovar Albanians whom they accused of collaborating with Serbs in Zllash.
"These were not enemies of Kosovo. They were not spies," senior prosecutor Jack Smith told the court. "Their only crime was to have political views that differed from the [UCK] and its senior leaders."
Smith stressed that his team wasn't targeting the UCK, Kosovo, or its people, nor their struggle for independence.
"Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth," he told the court.
The 49-year-old Mustafa, who reiterated his plea of not guilty, was arrested last year while working as an adviser at Kosovo's Defense Ministry.
The case is the first to go to trial at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which was established in The Hague in 2015 to probe allegations that members of the UCK committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the war between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serbian forces.
The EU-backed court operates under Kosovar law but is based in the Netherlands to shield witnesses from intimidation.
At the September 15 session, the presiding judge read out the indictment to Mustafa, who was asked whether he wished to confirm his earlier not plea of not guilty.
"Yes, I am not guilty of any of the counts brought here before me by this Gestapo office," Mustafa, dressed in a black hoodie and track pants, told the court, referring to the the secret police of Nazi Germany.
Presiding judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia warned him that the court would "not allow the use of disrespectful language" at future hearings.
The court has said in statement that several hearings are scheduled during September and October, during which the prosecution intends to call 16 witnesses.
Among the other defendants facing trial are former Kosovar President Hashim Thaci; Kadri Veseli, a former speaker of parliament and leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo; Rexhep Selimi, a Kosovar lawmaker; and Jakup Krasniqi, another former speaker of parliament.
They have been detained in The Hague since November 2020 and have pleaded not guilty to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nearly a decade after a 78-day NATO air campaign drove Serbian troops out and an international peacekeeping force moved in.
The conflict left more than 10,000 people dead -- most of them ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. More than 1,600 people remain unaccounted for.
Kosovo, which has a largely ethnic Albanian population, is recognized by many Western states but not Serbia or its allies Russia and China.