The UN Yugoslav war crimes court on Thursday 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 in a decision that is certain to enrage Belgrade.
The court’s public gallery erupted in cries of joy as the acquittals were announced.
Haradinaj, 44 and Idriz Balaj, 41, were being retried on six war-crime charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for allegedly murdering and torturing Serbs and non-Albanians during the 1998-99 war.
The third accused, Lahi Brahimaj, 42, faced four counts for his role in the fight between independence-seeking ethnic Albanian guerillas and the Belgrade forces of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
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 accused the three men of murdering and torturing Serbs and suspected collaborators against the separatist KLA and had demanded at least 20 years prison for all three men.
But judges found that the accused had not taken part in a “joint criminal enterprise” to cleanse the area of ethnic Serbs, and that some witness testimony was unreliable.
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.”
Following one incident of abuse “a KLA soldier 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.
An acquittal 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 Serbs.
Senior Serbian officials had warned 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 Kosovo Liberation Army (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.
Brahimaj was convicted of torture and sentenced to six years in jail.
Judges however ordered the court’s first-ever partial retrial for all three after UN prosecutors appealed the acquittal and Brahimaj’s sentence.
Appeals judges said the ICTY’s trial chamber “seriously erred in failing to take adequate measures to secure the testimony of certain witnesses” during the original 10-month trial.
Haradinaj – who quit his job as prime minister after 100 days in office to hand himself over to the tribunal – and Balaj returned to court for the verdict while Brahimaj was still in detention.
Haradinaj, who established the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party after the conflict, has been on provisional release since May 10 and living at home in Pristina.
He is now likely to continue his political career in Kosovo and is expected to run again for prime minister.
His face adorns huge billboards all over Kosovo that read “the leader who keeps his words” and “forward with a clean slate.”
However, he 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 advisor to Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, had warned 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 fiercely opposes its international recognition.