‘False war veterans’ affair provokes long-term recriminations in Kosovo
In February this year, the Pristina Court of First Instance cleared ex-Prime Minister Agim Ceku and 11 co-defendants, including another ex-minister and several ex-deputies, of abusing their official positions to add persons on the government approved list of KLA veterans eligible for benefits.
In March, the prosecutor appealed the decision and the appeal process is still ongoing.
“Even if he acquits the accused officials, the court must thoroughly verify all cases because there are thousands of bogus veterans on the list,” Lani insisted.
Former prosecutor Blakaj said the case of bogus ex-combatants illustrates that a culture of impunity runs deep in Kosovo.
He argued that the lengthy court proceedings often observed in cases involving high profile suspects are “one of the methods of obtaining immunity for public figures implicated in abuses of power.”
Because so-called bogus veterans are still receiving benefits, “we have an ongoing criminal offense,” he said.
“The case needs to be dealt with as a priority, but we are unlikely to see anything concrete at second instance [appeal process],” he added.
In addition to the audit commission trial, there have been various other legal efforts to tackle fraudulent claims for veterans pensions, which amount to 170 euros per month.
BIRN has learned that the Kosovo Special Prosecutor’s Office has so far issued a total of 39 indictments accusing 76 people of falsifying documents to claim veterans pensions.
In January 2020, the special prosecutor’s office announced that more than 8,000 of these requests for veteran status had been sent for investigation to the prosecutor’s office in the town of Peja / Pec alone.
In October 2019, the Peja / Pec Magistrates’ Court ordered three people to return payments they fraudulently received after falsifying their veteran status. But so far none of them have refunded the money.
Lani and others are still receiving payments of 170 euros per month despite the prosecutor asking the appeals court to suspend them until she delivers its decision in the verification commission case .
However, he stressed that money was never his motivation to join the KLA. “I didn’t fight to get paid. I was not a mercenary, ”he said.
He wondered what the authorities would do if the appeals court ruled that many people who had been verified as ex-combatants were making false statements: “What will happen to the thousands of people on the ground? listing ? He asked. “Should they return the money?” “
Veterans associations have repeatedly called on the court to quash the charges against members of the government verification commission, saying the allegations in the indictment were false.
Gazmend Syla, chief of veterans of the KLA wartime area of operations in Dukagjini and former advisor to the prime minister on veterans matters, who is also on the “bogus veterans” list used by the prosecution, said the list was an invention.
“It’s a shame, there are dozens of people who have died during the pandemic and have never seen their cases closed,” Syla said.
Muse Zenelaj’s uncle Zenel was on the fake veteran list but recently died of COVID-19 at the age of 66 while waiting for his status to be resolved.
“It’s unfair to him and his family. He had been a fighter since the start of the war and he was sure the court would settle his case, ”Zenelaj said.
Despite the investigations that have been carried out so far, very few bogus veterans have been taken off the verified list.
The Ministry of Finance said that currently 36,920 people are on the benefit recipient list, and more than 2,000 have been deleted since last year, not because their claims were bogus, but because they were found a job.
The ministry also confirmed that from January to September of this year, a total of 56,853,817.25 euros was paid out in benefits to veterans, those who became disabled due to the war and the families of those killed.