UN court acquits former Kosovo wartime premier

Ramush Haradinaj, the highest-ranking Kosovo politician to be tried by the UN court in the Hague, was acquitted of charges of ethnic cleansing against the Serb minority in the 1998-99 war. (Report: K.Williams)


The UN war crimes court Thursday acquitted Kosovo's ex-prime minister Ramush Haradinaj of charges of "ethnic cleansing" of minority Serbs after a trial marked by reluctance of witnesses to testify.

One of his co-accused, Idriz Balaj, was also acquitted, while a third defendant, Lahi Brahimaj, who headed a notorious detention camp, was handed a six-year prison sentence.

The prosecution had asked for 25 years for the three former senior figures in the separatist ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), saying they were trying to evict Serbs and political rivals from territories they controlled.

Haradinaj, 39, was the highest-ranking Kosovo Albanian politician to go on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, and is considered a hero by many in the breakaway territory.

Dutch judge Alphons Orie, the president of the court, noted that there had been great difficulties in persuading witnesses to give evidence.

Several witnesses refused to take the stand and were charged with contempt of court. According to the prosecution, important witnesses were intimidated to persuade them not to give evidence.

One former KLA member, Shefquet Kabashi, told the judges he refused to testify because other witnesses were being killed in Kosovo.

When judges pointed out he could get protection from the court, Kabashi scoffed that the protective measures "do not exist in real life, but only in the courtroom".

Haradinaj was a commander of the KLA guerrilla group at the time of the alleged atrocities, as was Balaj, 36, who allegedly headed a paramilitary unit known as the Black Eagles.

Brahimaj, 38, was a deputy commander of the KLA and ran the Jablanica prison camp, where he was said to have personally tortured inmates.

The accused had all pleaded not guilty.

In an unprecedented move all the suspects' lawyers decided not to present a defence case. Instead they only gave closing statements in January.

Haradinaj founded the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party shortly after a NATO bombing campaign ended a Serbian army crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo.

The KLA, which fought against Serbian forces during the war, was later disbanded.

In 2005, after he was indicted by the ICTY, Haradinaj stepped down as prime minister of the UN-administered Serbian province and surrendered to the UN court.

While he awaited trial the court allowed Haradinaj to be provisionally released to return to Kosovo and he was even allowed a limited return to public life with the support of the UN mission in Kosovo.

Haradinaj's defence downplayed his role in the KLA, saying it was not really an army but "a movement of terrified Albanian civilians that grew out of village and family groupings".

His alleged position of leadership was in reality no comparison to that of a conventional army commander, his lawyers told the court.

For the court to convict Haradinaj for crimes committed by his subordinates, the prosecution had to prove he had authority over them.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February, in a move recognised so far by more than 35 countries.

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