War crimanal and/or national hero
By MARLISE SIMONS (New York Times, April 4, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/world/europe/04kosovo.html
PARIS — The United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague on Thursday acquitted a former commander of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army of all charges of war crimes in a decision that could inflame anti-Kosovo sentiment in Serbia just weeks after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence.The commander, Ramush Haradinaj, who also briefly served as prime minister of Kosovo three years ago, was found not guilty of murder, persecution, rape and torture of Kosovo Serb civilians. The crimes were said to have been carried out by men under his command in 1998, when the rebels fought to free their largely ethnic Albanian region from Serbian rule.Another rebel commander, Idriz Balaj, was also acquitted, while a third defendant, Lahi Brahimaj, was sentenced to six years in prison for torture and cruel treatment of prisoners.

The men who were acquitted may return home as early as Friday, and they are expected to be given a hero’s welcome. But in court, in summarizing their verdict, the judges said that the case presented had many flaws. They cited vague evidence and widespread fear among witnesses, suggesting that the full version of events had not been told.

The complete text of the judgment was not available, but in their summary, the judges gave much weight to the fear and the evident intimidation of witnesses. Lawyers said that in no other case before the tribunal had witness intimidation been so widespread.

The judges said that they had serious difficulties in getting many of almost 100 witnesses to testify freely. They said that they had to permit 34 witnesses to hide their identities from the public, that 18 were subpoenaed because they refused to testify and that others said they dared not talk once they were in court.

The case against Mr. Haradinaj was fraught with difficulties from the start. Western diplomats tried to dissuade Carla Del Ponte, who was the chief prosecutor, from indicting Mr. Haradinaj, arguing that he was a respected political leader who played an important role in stabilizing Kosovo.

Within the prosecutor’s office, some lawyers also had warned that the case against Mr. Haradinaj was weak because it would be hard to link him to the crimes.

Prosecutors complained repeatedly about pressure on the witnesses, saying that those most afraid were former rebel fighters who had been expected to testify as insiders. At least three designated witnesses were killed before the trial, prosecutors said.

In November, the trial ground to a halt when the defense lawyers for all three accused unexpectedly announced that they would not call any witnesses because they considered the prosecution case so weak.

For Serbs, the acquittal of two of the former rebel commanders, whose forces were backed and supported by the West, was likely to be viewed as one more insult.

Kosovo has long been portrayed as a victim of Serbia. Only one other case at the tribunal has focused on the abuses and killings by fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Human rights groups have documented numerous killings and instances of mistreatment of those not siding with the rebels.

Oliver Ivanovic, who represents Kosovo Serbs, told the FoNet news agency in Belgrade that the acquittals would make it even more difficult to demand that the Serbian government arrest Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, wartime Bosnian Serb leaders who remain fugitives.

Serbs will now see the tribunal as even more of a political, rather than a legal, institution, Mr. Ivanovic said. He added, “It will be now very difficult to convince any Serb that this is not an anti-Serb tribunal.”

In Thursday’s ruling, Mr. Brahimaj was sentenced to six years for the abuse of prisoners detained in a camp where he was in charge. It said that he had personally participated in beatings and torture.

Mr. Brahimaj, who has already served three years, is likely to be freed in a year if he gets the usual reduction for good behavior that is common in European countries where he may serve his time.

After Mr. Haradinaj surrendered to the court, in 2005, he was allowed to return to Kosovo to await his trial. Much to the frustration of Ms. Del Ponte, he was treated favorably when the court permitted him to play a limited political role at home, a privilege granted to no other detainee.

It was not clear if prosecutors would appeal.