UN tribunal acquits Kosovo ex-PM of war crimes

Kosovo's former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj returned home Thursday to a jubilant welcome after a UN court cleared him of war crimes charges relating to the 1990s war of independence.

Kosovo's former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj (L) flanked by Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci (R) review the Kosovo Security Force honour guard upon arrival at the Pristina International Airport.

The ruling, the second such acquittal in two weeks, provoked a furious reaction from Belgrade, as crowds of Kosovars celebrated around the capital Pristina.

The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) cleared the former military commander and two of his former guerrilla comrades, closing a case that has lasted seven years.

"The chamber finds you not guilty on all counts in the indictment," Judge Bakone Justice Moloto said.

He ordered all three released immediately after their retrial, which had been held because of alleged witness intimidation in the first proceedings.

Back in Pristina a few hours later, Haradinaj told reporters at the airport: "International justice has confirmed that our path towards freedom was just and proper."

Some 4,000 people welcomed Haradinaj at the central Pristina square, waving Albanian red flags with two-headed black eagle and changing chanting "Ramush, Ramush".

Haradinaj addressed the crowd from a makeshift stage, accompanied by his wife and several former comrades in arms, dressed in guerrilla uniforms. He had a "lot to tell", he told them.

"I will spare my words but not my deeds," Haradinaj said, without elaborating further. After his brief speech, a 15-minute long fireworks display exploded in the skies above Pristina.

Haradinaj, 44 and Idriz Balaj, 41, were retried on six war crime charges at the tribunal, once again accused of having murdered and tortured Serbs and non-Albanians during the 1998-99 conflict. They had initially been acquitted.

The third accused, Lahi Brahimaj, 42, faced four counts for his role with the ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in their fight against the forces of then late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Serbia reacted furiously to the ruling, accusing the UN tribunal of bias against Serbs after the verdict. Only two weeks earlier, the same court had acquitted Croatian General Ante Gotovina of war crimes against Serbs.

"The tribunal, apparently created outside international law, was set up to try the Serbian people," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said.

"Nobody will be convicted for the terrible crimes against Kosovo Serbs."

Nikolic warned that EU-sponsored talks between Pristina and Belgrade -- which still regards Kosovo as part of Serbia after its unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 -- could be jeopardised.

Some 300 people, mostly young supporters of right-wing nationalist movements, protested in central Belgrade at Haradinaj's release.

Bosnian Serb wartime political and army chiefs Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are still on trial at the ICTY. It has already sentenced six top former Serbian military and police officials for war crimes during the Kosovo conflict.

But no high-ranking official from any other ethnic community has been sentenced for crimes against Serbs during the Balkans wars.

Reacting to the ruling, Amnesty International's John Dalhuisen asked if these men were innocent, then who had committed the crimes listed in the indictment?

"Is anybody ever going to be brought to justice?" he asked.

Haradinaj and Balaj, his lieutenant and commander of the feared "Black Eagles" unit, were the most senior KLA commanders to be tried. They were first acquitted in April 2008 on 37 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Brahimaj was convicted of torture and sentenced to six years in jail.

In the retrial, prosecutors accused the three men of having murdered and tortured Serbs and suspected collaborators working against the KLA and had called for sentences of at least 20 years.

But judges found that some witness testimony was unreliable.

Judge Moloto said one witness may not even have been in the Jablanica detention camp, where suspects' arms were allegedly broken and eyes gouged out, and "may have told what he heard from others."

Haradinaj's lawyer Ben Emmerson said the verdict had vindicated his client, who now planned to resume his "rightful position as the political leader of the country".

Haradinaj's address to the jubilant crowd in Pristina seemed to confirm that.

"I guarantee you that we will improve governing, democracy and economy in order (for Kosovo) to become an European society," he said.

Haradinaj, who established the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party after the conflict, is still wanted in Belgrade on war crimes charges.

The Kosovo conflict ended when NATO forces intervened to stop a crackdown on ethnic Albanians by the troops loyal to Milosevic. More than 10,000 people died in the fighting which marked one of the darkest chapters of the 1990s Balkans conflicts.

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency