A UN war crimes appeals court has acquitted Momcilo Perisic, the former chief of staff for the Yugoslav army, of all charges and ordered his immediate release.
In September 2011, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found the ex-general guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in atrocities committed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s – including the massacre at Srebrenica – and sentenced him to 27 years in prison.
The Hague-based appeals court ruled on Thursday that Perisic’s guilt had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Judge Theodor Meron of the ICTY appeals chamber ordered “the immediate release” of Perisic, 68, a former right-hand man of late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Perisic’s acquittal means that no official from the Belgrade-controlled Yugoslav republic has now been convicted for crimes committed in Bosnia.
The only other senior Yugoslav official to be implicated for the Srebrenica massacre was Milosevic, who died mid-trial in his Hague detention cell in 2006.
String of acquittals
Thursday’s judgement is the latest in a string of acquittals at the ICTY, but the freeing of a Serbian military leader will be welcomed in Belgrade where the court has been perceived as biased.
Perisic was found guilty of 12 of 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the 2011 ruling.
The charges included helping the Bosnian Serb army murder and persecute Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, scene of Europe’s worst wartime atrocity since World War II, and the shelling and sniping of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, during its infamous siege from 1992-95 and the siege of Croatia’s Zagreb.
But the appeals chamber on Thursday ruled that “Mr Perisic’s convictions for aiding and abetting must be reversed on the ground that not all the elements of aiding and abetting have been proven beyond reasonable doubt”, according to Meron.
“Mr Perisic was not proved beyond reasonable doubt to have facilitated assistance specifically directed towards VRS [Bosnian Serb army] crimes in Sarajevo and Srebrenica,” Meron said.
“Instead, a reasonable interpretation of the record is that VJ [Yugoslav army] aid facilitated by Mr Perisic was directed towards the Bosnian Serb army’s general war effort rather than VRS crimes.”
Reading from Bible
Perisic, dressed in a charcoal suit, light blue shirt and black-and-white spotted tie, showed no emotion as the verdict was read.
Just before the hearing started, he was seen reading from a Bible and made extensive notes during the hour-long reading.
His lawyer Novak Lukic praised the outcome.
“I feel great. He’s a free man. The Appeals Chamber have confirmed what we have always been saying about his innocence,” Lukic told AFP minutes afterwards.
Lukic said Perisic had gone back to the ICTY’s nearby detention unit to pack his things “including 200 books”.
“We are in the process of arranging his release from the detention unit and putting him onto a plane back to Belgrade,” he said.