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UN Court Acquits Former Kosovar Prime Minister, Two Others


A combo photo shows Ramush Haradinaj (left), Lahi Brahimaj (center), and Idriz Balaj during the verdict reading in The Hague on November 29
A combo photo shows Ramush Haradinaj (left), Lahi Brahimaj (center), and Idriz Balaj during the verdict reading in The Hague on November 29
Former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has returned to Kosovo after the UN war crimes court acquitted him of war crimes charges during the 1998-1999 conflict.

Haradinaj's two codefendants, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj, were also acquitted.

All three had been accused of the murder and torture of Serbs as ethnic Albanian rebels fought for independence from Serbia during the 1998-99 conflict. All three denied the charges.

The verdict came during the first-ever retrial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

In the first trial in 2008, Haradinaj and Balaj had been acquitted. Brahimaj was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

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An appeals chamber later overturned the verdicts and ordered a retrial, citing intimidation of prosecution witnesses.

Haradinaj was a prominent leader of the rebel ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), where Balaj and Brahimaj were also commanders.

They had been accused of a role in the torture and murder of Serbs and their supporters at a UCK detention camp.

"There is no evidence that suggests, let alone proves beyond reasonable doubt, that Ramush Haradinaj prompted or instructed the [Kosovo Liberation Army] soldiers, who forcefully removed [Kosovo Albanian men] Naser Lika and Fadil Fazliu from [the village of] Zhabel, to commit these acts or that he aided and abetted this crime," Presiding Judge Bakone Moloto said.

Upon return to Pristina, Haradinaj pledged to return to political life.

Crowds of Haradinaj supporters in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, cheered after the announcement of his acquittal.

In a statement, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said the verdict was the "most powerful proof that the Kosovo Liberation Army has fought a just war for freedom" and had been "unfairly" accused of war crimes.

Haradinaj was the most senior ethnic Albanian to be indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal.

He quit as Kosovo prime minister in 2005 after just three months in office when his indictment was announced by the tribunal.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said in a statement that the ruling was further proof the UN war crimes tribunal was "formed to try the Serbian people."

Serbian government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic told the media in Belgrade the ruling had compromised the idea of international justice.

"I believe that this acquittal is the most burdensome for the international community and the international mission in Kosovo and Metohija. Haradinaj's acquittal is a verdict on the international mission in [Kosovo]. Those who could not protect 19 or 30 [prosecution] witnesses in the Haradinaj case, cannot claim they can protect 150,000 Serbs from extremists in [Kosovo]," Mihajlovic said.

"This verdict is a heavy blow to international law and justice in the case of Kosovo and a serious obstacle in the process of reconciliation."

Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic had earlier warned a not-guilty verdict could complicate EU-brokered talks between Belgrade and Pristina.

Belgrade refuses to recognize the independence Kosovo unilaterally declared in 2008.

Haradinaj's acquittal came less than two weeks after the UN tribunal acquitted two Croatian generals of war crimes during a 1995 military operation against rebel Serbs, a judgment that sparked outrage among Serbs.

With reporting by Reuters and AP
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