(Adds Human Rights Watch comment, paragraph 16)
PRISTINA (Reuters) - Former Kosovo president Hashim Thaci, considered a hero by compatriots for leading the 1998-99 insurgency against Serbian rule that led to independence, will go on trial on Monday for alleged war crimes during the conflict.
A special Kosovo court set up in The Hague indicted Thaci in November 2020 on 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including persecution, murder, torture and enforced disappearance of people among other things during the uprising.
Thaci, 54, resigned as president shortly afterward and was transferred to detention in The Hague. Three of his closest associates, including two former speakers of parliament, face the same charges as ex-Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas.
The four are accused of participating in a "joint criminal enterprise ... that carried out widespread or systematic attacks" on minority Serb civilians in Kosovo as well as Kosovo Albanian opponents of the KLA. All have denied the charges.
As the fighting abated and Serbian forces withdrew under NATO bombardment from Kosovo, Thaci traded in his green uniform for a blue suit and tie. When Kosovo declared independence in 2008, he was prime minister, and in 2016 became president.
Ahead of the trial, billboards splashing photos of both Thaci and ex-parliament speaker Kadri Veseli with the inscription "Heroes of War and Peace" could be seen across the small Balkan country.
War veterans and other Kosovo nationalist groups announced a protest in support of the former KLA defendants for Sunday.
Olgica Bozanic, a Kosovo Serb, hopes the trial will be a chance to learn what happened to two brothers, Todor and Lazar Kostic, whose remains were found in a mass grave in a western Kosovo village in 2005 - which is covered by the indictment.
"From witness accounts, we know that they were taken from their house along with all men from the village on July 17, 1998 and that they were tortured," Bozanic told Reuters. "But we do not know when and how exactly they were killed. Maybe during the trial we will get some new evidence pointing out the details."
The Kostic brothers were in a larger group of Serbs detained in July that year and later killed on the edge of a cliff, and an army jeep was upended over them to hide their remains, an investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
But in 2005 a United Nations-led team of forensic experts uncovered the mass grave.
Along with her two brothers, 15 of Bozanic's cousins were detained and later killed by the KLA, she said. "I expect all those responsible for killings to be convicted so they cannot kill and torture again."
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers, seated in the Netherlands and staffed by international judges and lawyers, was set up in 2015 to handle cases under Kosovo law against ex-KLA guerrillas.
Many Kosovo Albanians believe that the tribunal is biased against the KLA and interested in denigrating its record.
But Ehat Miftaraj of the non-governmental Kosovo Law Institute said the trial should be understood as a case "against a few individuals of the former KLA and not a trial against the KLA or the values that the people of Kosovo represent".
In a statement on Friday, Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the trial "offers a chance after so many years for the victims to learn what happened and highlights the pervasive impunity that still hangs over the Kosovo conflict”.
The court was created separately from the U.N. criminal tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was also located in The Hague where it tried and convicted mainly Serbian officials for war crimes in the Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts.
More than 13,000 people, the majority members of the 90% ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, are believed to have died during the late 1990s insurgency when it was still a province of Serbia under then-strongman president Slobodan Milosevic.
Milosevic went on trial before the ICTY but he died in 2006 before a verdict was reached.
The fighting ended after NATO air strikes on Serbian forces and Kosovo declared independence a decade later, though Serbia continues to refuse recognition of its statehood.
Gregory Kehoe, an American lawyer on Thaci's defence team, said prosecutors would be given two years to complete their presentation of evidence.
"This man sacrificed throughout all these years and hopefully we'll be able to bring that forth in the courtroom and show that he was an honest, truthful man, and bring about his acquittal," he told Reuters.
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(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci and Ivana Sekularac, editing by Mark Heinrich)