UN court acquits former Kosovo premier of war crimes
The ruling will allow Ramush Haradinaj to return to politics in his newly-declared independent nation.4 April 2008
THE HAGUE - Kosovo's former prime minister, a close Western ally when he led a rebel movement against Serbia, was acquitted on Thursday by a U.N. court of war crimes, clearing him to return to politics in his newly-declared independent nation.
Ramush Haradinaj, 39, who was a leader of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army during the 1998-99 war, was acquitted of 37 counts of murder, torture and rape. Although the crimes were committed by KLA soldiers, Haradinaj was exonerated of responsibility and of a conspiracy to drive ethnic Serbs from Kosovo to seize complete control for ethnic Albanians.
He was due to be released from a U.N. jail and to return to Kosovo on Friday.
Cheers erupted from the public gallery as presiding Judge Alphons Orie announced the verdict. Haradinaj kept his eyes down and remained expressionless.
After the judgment, Haradinaj said in a statement released by his legal team: "This is a verdict that strengthens Kosovo. We endured a difficult liberation struggle that cost many lives. Today we are a free and sovereign nation. We can now build a dynamic and united society that is based on the rule of law and respect for the fundamental rights of all citizens."
In Pristina, the Kosovo capital where the judgment could be watched online, ethnic Albanians took to streets, honking horns and waving Albanian and Kosovo flags to celebrate.
In Belgrade, Serbia's prime minister Vojislav Kostunica said Haradinaj's acquittal presented a "mockery of justice" and a "new, big crime against the Serbs" in Kosovo. Nationalists urged Serbia to end all cooperation with the U.N. court, which has demanded the surrender of four more Serbian fugitives.
Serbia strongly objects to the independence of Kosovo, a province it regards as the cradle of Serb nationhood.
Along with Haradinaj, the court acquitted Idriz Balaj, who was a commander under Haradinaj, of all charges, but ordered him to return to Kosovo to complete a 15-year prison sentence handed down in 2002 related to separate incidents against ethnic Albanians.
A third defendant, Lahi Brahimaj, another commander under Haradinaj, was convicted of two counts of torture and cruelty, and sentenced to six years in prison.
The three-judge panel of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that the prosecution's cases lacked solid evidence on almost all allegations, dismissing much of the evidence as "vague, inconclusive or nonexistent."
But the judges also acknowledged that many witnesses were too afraid to testify, even when the court indicted them for contempt.
Prosecution spokeswoman Olga Kavran said prosecutors were studying the 277-page judgment and had not decided whether to appeal.
[AP / Expatica]