A former Kosovo rebel commander has been tried in The Hague on charges of war crimes.
Salih Mustafa has been accused of murdering and torturing suspected collaborators during the Kosovo war of 1998-99 for independence from Serbia.
Prosecutors say there is compelling evidence that the former rebel fighter is guilty of torturing at least six people and murdering another.
Salih Mustafa was arrested a year ago in Kosovo and sent to the Netherlands to be tried by the Specialized Chambers of Kosovo, supported by the European Union.
This will be the first trial to be heard by the tribunal, a branch of Kosovo’s legal system that was set up specifically to deal with allegations of war crimes.
Senior Prosecutor Jack Smith stressed that the charges were not against the people of Kosovo or their struggle for independence.
Mustafa is charged with the war crimes of arbitrary detention, cruel treatment, six cases of torture and the murder of a person in a detention center in Zllash in April 1999.
The victims were accused by Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters of collaborating with the Serbs or not supporting the KLA, according to its indictment.
Mustafa pleaded not guilty to all counts and angered the victims’ lawyers by leaving court after the prosecution’s opening statement.
“We see this as a clear contempt and disrespect for the victims,” said lawyer Anni Pues.
Victims alleged that a number of war crimes were committed as ethnic Albanian rebels united in the Kosovo Liberation Army waged a bloody conflict to separate from Serbia in 1998-99.
The people held at the detention center that Mustafa ran were forced to sleep on the filthy floor of a barn and were not given enough food, water and medical treatment for the injuries sustained from the brutal beatings, according to prosecutors.
A 2011 Council of Europe report contained accusations that rebel fighters trafficked human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and other ethnic Albanians whom they considered to be collaborators.
Pues said the victims had awaited responsibility for the crimes for more than two decades.
“None of the wounds inflicted in 1999 have healed,” she said Wednesday.
Other former rebel commanders in custody awaiting trial is former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who resigned his post last year to defend himself against war crimes charges in The Hague.
Most of those who died in the Kosovo war were ethnic Albanians. A 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbian troops ended the fighting. KLA fighters are widely regarded as heroes in their homelands.
Several Serbs have been prosecuted in a former United Nations war crimes tribunal for their role in the atrocities of the Kosovo war.