VOICES: Kosovo war prisoners deserve a prompt trial in a fair court

I could tell my friend was thinking “Tony, do I have this right? You’re going to be 81 years old this month and tomorrow you’re going to get on an airplane and fly across the ocean to visit some inmates in prison, who you don’t know, pray with them; then get back on the plane and come home.”

I said “Yes, that’s about it.” I could tell he was thinking “Tony, you’ve lost it!”

I recently returned for visiting three men from Kosovo awaiting trial in the prison at The Hague in the Netherlands. The three, former President Hashim Thaci, former Speaker of the Parliament Kadri Verseli and former Acting President Jacob Krasniqi, have been held here for two long years, awaiting trail for allegedly committing crimes against humanity during the Kosovo war of 1998.

The charges against them have roots in the Balkan War, an extremely violent and ugly war in the 1990′s that came about with the fall of Yugoslavia. Ethnic and religious tensions boiled over and Serbs, Bosnians and Croats fought until the Dayton Peace Accords ended active fighting in 1995. Unfortunately, it couldn’t end all the strife as violence again broke out in 1998 when Serbia and newly formed Kosovo battled. After fighting in Kosovo ended in 1999, accusations of war crimes flew in every direction and these three men are among many accused.

Truth is the first casualty of war and I won’t pretend to have the wisdom to judge these three. I do know that I went on this trip because of my faith, and that scripture calls on us to fellowship with those who are incarcerated, such as Matthew 25:36 “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” I’ve been helping to feed people for years, but I haven’t visited people in prison.

It was a short and exhausting trip, but stimulating and wonderful in many ways. It was wonderful and rewarding to see the joy these men showed from just by a simple act of visiting them. They were touched that somebody would come so far, without knowing them, just to pray and show love. It surprised me how much hope this little visit gave them.

I spent two days in their prison listening to their life and their stories. One of the men said “I’m free, I know why I’m in prison. I defended my country. And now my country of Kosovo and my family are free.”

They have been in prison now over two years and haven’t had a trial. Many of the allegations are from more than 20 years ago and as they wait for trial, key witnesses such as Richard Holbrook, and Madeline Albright have passed away. We know that their Serbian accusers are aligned with Moscow and there are reports that President Putin and his representatives have been supplying much of the evidence against these men, through the Serbian government to the court that will be trying this case.

The Kosovo government and its people are very pro-American. They believe, and some foreign affairs experts agree, that Putin’s next place to cause disruption and havoc in the world, after Ukraine, is in Kosovo and the Balkans. One of the ways to do this is tarnish the image of its people and the country.

We all know that justice delayed is justice denied. And waiting in prison as key witnesses pass away is certainly justice denied. As these men stated to me many times, all they want is a prompt and fair trial and a fair court.

Before I left, we prayed, I read some scripture to them, and they hugged me over and over with tears of joy and hope. I learned that prison ministry isn’t about who’s innocent or guilty, it’s about bringing hope to our brothers and sisters in their darkest hour. I don’t know what’s going to happen to these men, but I know I care for them and I pray they receive the prompt and fair trial they deserve. This has been a powerful experience for me and I will never forget these men.

Tony Hall is a former congressman, UN ambassador and founder of the Hall Hunger Initiative.

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