CORRECTED: UN tribunal acquits Kosovo ex-PM of war crimes
A UN war crimes court on Thursday acquitted Kosovo's ex-prime minister Ramush Haradinaj of murder and torture during the 1990s war of independence, enraging Belgrade with the second such acquittal in two weeks.
"The chamber finds you not guilty on all counts in the indictment," Judge Bakone Justice Moloto said, ordering Haradinaj and two former guerrilla comrades released immediately after their retrial which was ordered because of witness intimidation in the earlier proceedings.
Fireworks exploded around Kosovo's capital Pristina and the court's public gallery erupted in cries of joy as the acquittals were announced, while the accused calmly welcomed the news.
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 guerrillas and the Belgrade forces of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Belgrade slammed the verdict -- which came after the court in The Hague two weeks ago acquitted Croatian General Ante Gotovina of war crimes against Serbs -- as legalising "Mafia rule" because of the alleged witness intimidation.
"The Hague tribunal has legalised Mafia rule in Kosovo, above all, the omerta, the law of silence which still prevails and is stronger than any crime," government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic told AFP.
Senior Serbian officials had warned that should Haradinaj walk, EU-sponsored talks between Pristina and Belgrade -- which still considers Kosovo to be part of Serbia -- could be jeopardised.
Several hundred people braved the rain to watch the verdict on a giant screen in a central square of Pristina, where Haradinaj is considered a hero by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.
"Justice has won, Kosovo has won," said Haradinaj supporter Jahja Lluka as tears of joy streamed down his face.
Former rebel fighter Shpetim Felmanaj said: "We are awaiting his return with joy to lead Kosovo".
Prosecutors accused the three men of murdering and torturing Serbs and suspected collaborators against the separatist KLA and had demanded prison sentences of at least 20 years.
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."
"There is no credible evidence that Haradinaj was even aware of the crimes committed at Jablanica," Moloto said.
The men's lawyers welcomed the ruling and rounded on the tribunal's former prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, for having brought the charges in 2005.
Haradinaj's lawyer, Ben Emmerson, said the verdict had vindicated his client.
"He has asked me to say that he will be returning to Kosovo this evening and with the consent of the people, will soon be resuming his rightful position as the political leader of the country," Emmerson said.
Haradinaj will "guarantee the rights of all minorities and he will ensure full political participation for the Serbs in Kosova," Emmerson said.
He added that Del Ponte should be made to answer for her actions.
"She was told over and over again by the British and Americans and others that she had got this badly wrong. But she was determined to press ahead in the teeth of the evidence."
Brahimaj's lawyer Richard Harvey for his part denied that witnesses had ever been intimidated.
"Carla del Ponte lied repeatedly when she said witnesses had been intimidated and even murdered."
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.
Haradinaj, who established the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party after the conflict, has been free on bail since May and living at home in Pristina.
However, he is still wanted in Belgrade on war crimes charges.
The conflict in Kosovo 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.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade fiercely opposes its international recognition.
© 2012 AFP