Serbia rails at UN court verdict acquitting Kosovo ex-PM of war crimes

By bne IntelliNews November 29, 2012

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In a move that has infuriated Serbia but caused jubilation on the streets of Kosovo's capital Pristina, the UN war crimes tribunal on November 29 acquitted former Kosovo rebel leader and ex-prime minister Ramush Haradinaj of war crimes at a retrial.

Already smarting from the acquittal of Croatian war crimes suspects Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac earlier this month, Serbia greeted the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia's (ICTY) verdict on Haradinaj, who is seen by Serbs as a war criminal, with fury.

"The latest decision of the tribunal is not based on law and justice," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said in a statement.

Serbian government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic told TV B92: "The Hague tribunal has now clearly sent a message to Serbia that it has taken a side... It legitimized the position that nobody is culpable for crimes committed against Serbs."

Ramush Haradinaj joined the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) as it campaigned for independence of the mostly ethnic-Albanian province from Serbia in the 1990s. The initial indictment against Haradinaj and two other former commanders, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj, alleged they were responsible for the "cruel treatment, torture and murder of prisoners in the KLA-run camp at Jablanica" during that struggle.

After the Nato-led action that ended the war and brought independence to the erstwhile province of Serbia, Haradinaj entered politics. He became leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo and prime minister in December 2004. A hundred days later, he was indicted by the ICTY and stood down. Submitting himself to the court, he flew, voluntarily, to The Hague confident he would be cleared.

Indeed, in 2008 Haradinaj and Balaj, a former commander of the KLA's Black Eagles unit, were acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, though Brahimaj was sentenced to six years for cruel treatment and torture of two prisoners.

The prosecution appealed, arguing that prosecution witnesses had been intimidated, and the tribunal's appeals chamber quashed the verdicts, ordering a retrial of all three men on some of the original charges. It found the court had "failed to take sufficient steps to counter the witness intimidation that permeated the trial". The retrial began in 2010. Haradinaj has, so far, spent four years in custody.

Fireworks went off in Kosovo's capital Pristina as the November 29 verdict at the ICTY was being read out and a street homecoming celebration was planned for his return. Local media speculated that Haradinaj could return to head the cabinet in a deal with Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, who is expected to run for president.

For Kosovo, with a 90% Albanian majority, the verdict "proved that the KLA liberation war ... was not a 'joint criminal enterprise,' but a fight for freedom," the foreign ministry in Pristina said in a statement.

Prime Minister Thaci, who was the political leader of KLA, welcomed the verdict as proof that the "fight for freedom and independence was just and sacred."

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