The UN Yugoslav war crimes court acquitted Kosovo’s ex-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and two aides in a retrial on charges of murder and torture during the 1990s war of independence from Belgrade.
“The chamber finds you not guilty on all counts in the indictment,” Judge Bakone Justice Moloto told the Hague-based court, ordering the men released.
Judges in the retrial ruled on Thursday that there was no evidence that Haradinaj and two accomplices had taken part in such a plan.
The court’s public gallery erupted in cries of joy as the acquittals were announced.
The proceedings were broadcast live on a giant screen in the Kosovo capital Pristina, where Haradinaj is considered a hero by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority who had high hopes of an acquittal.
Prosecutors had said Haridinaj participated as a commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army in a criminal plan to drive Serbs out of the province, which at the time was ruled from Belgrade, and had demanded at least 20 years in prison for all three men.
‘Miscarriage of justice’
Thursday’s verdicts came in the UN court’s first retrial so far, which was ordered after appeals judges branded the 2008 acquittal of Haradinaj and Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighter Idriz Balaj and the conviction of a third KLA commander, Lahi Brahimaj, a “miscarriage of justice” because of widespread intimidation of prosecution witnesses.
Moloto said that one witness may not have been in the Jablanica detention camp where alleged abuses took place and “may have told what he heard from others.”
After one incident of abuse “a KLA solider apologised for the incident and blamed it on extremist groups within the KLA,” the judge said.
“There is no credible evidence that Haradinaj was even aware of the crimes committed at Jablanica,” Moloto said.
The acquittal clears the way for a possible return to the political scene for Haradinaj, seen before his 2005 indictment as a unifying force in deeply divided Kosovo.
He is now likely to continue his political career in Kosovo and is expected to run again for prime minister.
Haradinaj had quit his job as prime minister after 100 days in office to hand himself over to the tribunal. He established the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party after the conflict, and has been on provisional release since May 10 and living at home in Pristina.
A slap in the face
The ruling is almost certain to be perceived by Serbia as a new slap in the face after the court earlier this month acquitted Croatian General Ante Gotovina of war crimes against the Serbs.
Senior Serbian officials had said that should Haradinaj walk, EU-sponsored talks between Pristina and Belgrade – which still considers Kosovo to be its southern province – could be jeopardised.
The most senior KLA commanders to be tried, Haradinaj as well as Balaj, his lieutenant and commander of the feared “Black Eagles” unit, were acquitted in April 2008 on 37 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Haradinaj is still considered a war criminal by Belgrade and an arrest warrant has been issued against him by Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor for his alleged crimes.
Oliver Antic, legal adviser to Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, had said that should Haradinaj be acquitted “it will surely jeopardise negotiations”.
“Haradinaj’s acquittal will distance us from reconciliation,” he added.
The conflict in Kosovo ended when NATO forces intervened to stop a crackdown on ethnic Albanians by the troops loyal to Milosevic.
In one of the most brutal episodes of the Balkans conflicts in the 1990s, more than 10,000 people died in the fighting.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade opposes its international recognition.