Kosovars celebrated and Serbian media and officials slammed a decision today by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at The Hague to acquit former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj of war crimes committed during the 1990s.
Agence France-Presse reports that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) acquitted Mr. Haradinaj and his lieutenant Idriz Balaj of six counts of crimes involving the murder and torture of Serbs and non-Albanians during the war in the Balkans in 1998 and 1999. Another officer, Lahi Brahimaj, was acquitted of four similar counts. The court, presided over by Judge Bakone Justice Moloto, said that despite the accusations, prosecutors failed to prove that the three men were involved in a "joint criminal enterprise" to ethnically cleanse Serbs.
In his ruling, the judge singled out the prosecutors' witnesses as 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.
Reuters reports that the acquittal was met with cheers in the courtroom and fireworks in Kosovo, where Haradinaj is considered a hero and served as prime minister for several months in 2005 before being charged by the ICTY, prompting him to step down to deal with the court case. Reuters notes that many in Kosovo expect him to reenter the government as part of Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's coalition. Mr. Thaci, who called the verdict "the strongest evidence that the Kosovo Liberation Army fought a just war for freedom and never committed the crimes of which we were unfairly accused," is, like Haradinaj, a former Kosovar military commander.
The Serbian media and officials quickly condemned the ruling. A government spokesman told AFP that the ruling "legalized Mafia rule in Kosovo," while Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic slammed the acquittal as unjust and political in a statement, reports Serbian radio station B92.
“Unfortunately, expectations that the Hague Tribunal will release Ramush Haradinaj, who was accused of murder, cruel treatment, inhuman actions against non-Albanian, Serb and Roma civilians in the camp of the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in Jablanica in 1998 and violation of law and customs of war, have come true,” reads Nikolić’s statement.
“The latest decision of the Tribunal is not based on the law and justice – the main postulates on which the international court should be based. The Tribunal was apparently founded contrary to the international law and it was founded to try the Serbian people. They want to achieve certain goals that the Serbian public is well aware of,” the president stressed.
The acquittal is the second ruling in two weeks to clear men who are seen as war criminals in Serbia. Earlier this month, two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, had their convictions for war crimes overturned by the ICTY. The Associated Press reports that Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic called the ruling "scandalous" and "political and not legal."
The Associated Press notes that while the ruling complicates ongoing, European Union-sponsored talks between Serbia and Kosovo – Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia still considers it a UN-governed domestic region, even as both nations seek to join the EU – Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has said that his country is unlikely to withdraw from the negotiations.
"Continuation of dialogue and the process of integration in the European Union are in Serbia's interest," he said.