The verdict was issued in the UN court’s first ever retrial, which was ordered after appeals judges branded the 2008 acquittals of former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and Kosovo Liberation Army fighters Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj a “miscarriage of justice” because of widespread intimidation of prosecution witnesses.
Brahimaj was convicted of torture at the first trial and that was not retried, but he has served his sentence. The acquittals herald a political renaissance for Haradinaj, but could complicate talks between Pristina and Belgrade on Kosovo’s future.
“With the consent of the people, he will soon be resuming his rightful position as the political leader of the country,” his lawyer Ben Emmerson said.
Emmerson said Haradinaj told him he wants to lead a government representing all ethnic groups in Kosovo. “It is time, he says, for reconciliation.”
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said the ruling vindicated the ethnic-Albanian guerrilla force that fought Serbia in 1998-99. “Our struggle for independence was just and sacred,” Thaci said in a statement.
Applause rang around the courtroom’s public gallery when Presiding Judge Bakone Moloto delivered the verdicts. In Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, supporters set off fireworks and honked car horns. Others danced as they watched the verdicts on a giant screen.
The three men were to be released and returned to Kosovo late yesterday.
“Finally, after eight long years and two lengthy trials, this tribunal has done justice to Ramush Haradinaj, to his co-accused and to the people of Kosovo,” Emmerson said.
Moloto said Serbs and their suspected supporters were beaten at a KLA compound in Kosovo and at least one of them died of his injuries. However, he said there was no evidence Haradinaj was involved in the attacks. In fact, Moloto said, Haradinaj reprimanded one KLA fighter for abusing a Kosovo Albanian man, telling the fighter: “No such thing should happen anymore because this is damaging our cause.”
Haradinaj quit as Kosovo’s prime minister in 2005 after just 100 days in office when his indictment was announced by the tribunal, but he remains popular at home.
In Kosovo, large posters welcoming him back were hung well before the decision was announced in The Hague.
Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic said the verdicts “fuel separatism, deal a blow to efforts at establishing peace in the region, annul efforts so far in normalizing ties between Belgrade and Pristina and fuel Euro-skepticism among the Serbian people.”
Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic described the acquittals as “unjust” and the result of “unprofessional” protection of witnesses. Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said, despite the verdicts, Serbia will not pull out of the talks with Pristina.