MOSCOW, November 29 - RAPSI, Ingrid Burke. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) acquitted former Kosovar prime minister and rebel leader Ramush Haradinaj of all charges of war crimes Thursday, ordering his immediate release from the UN detention center.

During the war that raged between Milosevic’s Serbian forces and the Kosovar rebels between 1998 and 1999, Haradinaj served as commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) forces in western Kosovo’s Dukagjin Operational Zone. He then served a brief stint as prime minister of Kosovo in 2005 before being indicted for the first time on war crimes charges stemming from the conflict.

Initially, Haradinaj was charged with 17 counts of crimes against humanity and 20 counts of violations of the laws or customs of war. Former KLA officers Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj were charged with all but two of these counts alongside their former commander. In April 2008, the ICTY acquitted Haradinaj and Balaj of all charges, and acquitted Brahimaj of all but two charges. The latter was sentenced to six years.

The prosecution appealed the decision, demanding that the trial chamber’s refusal to provide additional time to accommodate two key witnesses constituted a breach of fair trial rights. In July 2010, the ICTY appeals chamber granted in part the prosecution’s request, calling for a retrial against Haradinaj and Balaj on six of the indictment’s counts of violations of the laws or customs of war. The charges at issue on retrial included cruel treatment, torture, and murder. Notably, Brahimaj was only retried on four counts.

All of the charges at issue on retrial arose out of a KLA compound in the western Kosovar village of Jabllanicë/Jablanica, where it was alleged that the accused perpetrated various war crimes against detainees of Serb, Roma/Egyptian, and Albanian descent. The indictment charged that 16 such detainees were abducted and then subjected to torture and cruel treatment. Eight of these detainees were allegedly killed while in KLA custody.
The first count involved the murder, cruel treatment, and torture of a Kosovo Serb and of two Kosovar men of Roma/Egyptian descent. The three men set off by horse-drawn carriage to grind corn at a nearby mill in May 1998 and were never heard from again. The ICTY held that the prosecution failed to establish this count based on the inconsistencies of the accounts of two crucial witnesses.

The second count involved the murder and cruel treatment of two Kosovar men of Roma/Egyptian descent. The prosecution presented scant evidence of their demise, claiming that they were abducted by Albanian-speaking men in fatigues in May 1998. The court called shenanigans on the prosecution’s effort to cite witness testimony from another trial relating to an unknown pair of disappeared Roma/Egyptian men, and held that the prosecution failed to establish this second count.

The third count involved the June 1998 kidnapping of a Catholic Kosovo Albanian who was abducted from the side of a road and detained for about six weeks, during which time he endured repeated beatings. He was held during this time on suspicion of spying for the Serbs. The former abductee himself testified in front of the tribunal, and the judges found that the charges of torture and cruel treatment were adequately established.

The first part of the fourth count involved the abduction, beating, and ultimate disappearance of a Kosovo Serb traffic police officer in June 1998. The judges were mixed on this count, finding that the prosecution adequately established the accusations of torture and cruel treatment, but failed to establish the accusation of murder due to a lack of evidence.

The second part of this count involved the detention, beating, and stabbing of one unknown Bosnian man and three unknown Montenegrin men in June 1998. The court found that the prosecution adequately established charges of cruel treatment in connection with all four men, and torture in connection with the Bosnian. The judges asserted however that the prosecution failed to establish evidence supporting the claims of torture against the three Montenegrin men.

The fifth count involved the killings of two Kosovo Albanian men, one suspected of spying and another suspected “of having a lot of money.” The former attempted to escape and then was brutally beaten by KLA soldiers. He died shortly thereafter from complications arising from his injuries. The latter disappeared from the KLA compound approximately ten days after his arrival. His corpse turned up two months later in a canal, riddled with gunshot wounds to the head, torso, and upper extremities. The court found that the prosecution adequately established evidence of torture and cruel treatment against both men, and of the murder of the accused spy. The judges found however that due to the prosecution’s failure to present any evidence relating to the circumstances of the death of the man with too much money, it had failed to adequately establish his murder charge.

The sixth count involved the attacks and forced removal of two individuals from a house in Žabelj/Zhabel in the aftermath of an attack by Serbian forces, and their alleged detention in the Jabllanicë/Jablanica KLA compound. A witness claiming to have been in the detention center at the time attested to the mistreatment of one of the men by KLA soldiers. The court made clear its refusal to take this particular witness’ word as bond, going so far as to claim that he probably wasn’t even there at the time; he was probably merely echoing accounts of the events that he heard from others. Ultimately the judges found that the prosecutors established the charges of forced removal of the two men from Žabelj/Zhabel, but failed to establish the charges of torture and cruel treatment in connection with the detention of the one whose detention was considered.

Another key component of the indictment was that of the existence of a joint criminal enterprise aiming to consolidate control over the Dukagjin Operational Zone by various illicit and horrifying means. The court found, however, that the prosecution failed to present any direct evidence proving that the crimes established were connected with this alleged joint criminal enterprise.

The most compelling piece of evidence submitted by the prosecution pointing to the existence of a joint criminal enterprise was a list of names with the heading “Wanted /or missing/ persons.” The prosecution claimed that this was an example of one of various, “KLA blacklists of individuals who were suspected of being disloyal to the KLA, sympathising with the opposition LDK, or having worked for the Serbian authorities.” The court was unimpressed, concluding that the evidence presented of the existence of such lists was too weak to establish the existence of a joint criminal enterprise such as the one described in the indictment.

Because no joint criminal enterprise was found to exist, the court held that Haradinaj, Balaj, and Brahimaj could not be held liable for executing the crimes charged as part of a joint criminal enterprise.

Furthermore, the court held Haradinaj could not be held liable for ordering, instigating, or aiding and abetting in the Count 6 charges due to a lack in any “evidence that suggests, let alone proves beyond reasonable doubt, that Ramush Haradinaj prompted or instructed the KLA soldiers who forcefully removed Naser Lika and Fadil Fazliu from Zhabel/Žabelj to commit these acts or that he aided and abetted this crime.” Likewise, the prosecution failed to link Balaj or Brahimaj as individuals to the crimes alleged in Count 6.

Thus the court acquitted the three men and ordered their immediate release, explaining to Haradinaj after so many years of proceedings: “The Chamber finds you NOT GUILTY on all counts in the Indictment. The Chamber orders that, you be released from the United Nations Detention Unit.”