UN court orders retrial for former Kosovo prime minister acquitted of war crimes

By Mike Corder, AP
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

UN court orders retrial for former Kosovo premier

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Kosovo’s former prime minister must be retried on murder and torture charges related to the country’s 1998-99 war with Serbia, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal ruled Wednesday, calling his acquittal two years ago “a miscarriage of justice.”

The original trial for Ramush Haradinaj and two former Kosovo Liberation Army comrades was marred by intimidation that left two prosecution witnesses too scared to testify, tribunal President Patrick Robinson said.

“The trial chamber failed to appreciate the gravity of the threat that witness intimidation posted to the trial’s integrity,” Robinson said in ordering the first retrial in the tribunal’s 17-year history.

Haradinaj had been accused along with Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj of abusing Serbs or their supporters in 1998 as Kosovo battled for independence from Serbia, which it eventually declared in 2008.

Judges originally threw out all charges against Haradinaj and Balaj for lack of evidence, but convicted Brahimaj on charges of torture and sentenced him to six years. Appeals judges had later upheld Brahimaj’s sentence.

“Given the potential importance of these witnesses to the prosecution’s case, the error undermined the fairness of the proceedings and resulted in a miscarriage of justice,” Robinson said.

Robinson ordered Haradinaj, Balaj and Brahimaj retried on six counts of the original indictment alleging murder, cruel treatment and torture of prisoners at a KLA headquarters and prison in the town of Jablanica.

A date for the retrial has yet to be set, and it is unclear if the frightened witnesses would testify at the new hearings. Tribunal spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic said the first step will be to appoint a new panel of judges for the case.

Haradinaj showed no emotion in court Wednesday at Robinson’s ruling and was taken into custody along with Brahimaj. Balaj was not present in court.

Haradinaj’s lawyer Michael O’Reilly said he was “extremely surprised” by the decision.

“It is something we could not have foreseen, particularly in view of his unambiguous acquittal two years ago,” O’Reilly said in a statement sent to The Associated Press. “Our concerns now are, first, to ensure Mr. Haradinaj’s quick return to Kosovo and, second, to get the earliest possible date for the partial retrial.”

In a strongly worded statement, KLA veterans who fought under Haradinaj’s command in western Kosovo urged the tribunal to reverse its decision or risk destabilizing the region.

“If his detention continues, everything is clear: destabilization not only of Kosovo but of the entire Balkans,” veterans said in a statement sent to the AP.

Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric hailed the court decision as a “big victory for Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz and his team in their struggle for the rights of the victims.”

Belgrade often accuses the court of bias because the vast majority of its suspects are Serbs.

Haradinaj was working in western Europe as a nightclub bouncer and construction worker when he returned to Kosovo to fight for its independence in the 1998-99 uprising against Serbia, and rose to become one of its most prominent rebel commanders.

He was a Western ally who harbored NATO special forces as they chose targets for airstrikes in 1999 as the alliance bombed Serbia to end its crackdown on Kosovo.

Afterward, he was seen as a political leader prepared to bridge the divide between Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians and its Serb minority. He formed the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, a political party known as AAK, and was elected prime minister in December 2004.

But he lasted just 100 days in office before quitting in March 2005 after learning of the indictment against him and surrendering to authorities in The Hague.

Haradinaj returned to head the opposition AAK after his acquittal, but the party has struggled to regain the support it had enjoyed during his time as Kosovo’s prime minister.

Haradinaj’s deputy, Blerim Shala, told The Associated Press that Wednesday’s ruling was “very bad for the AAK, for the citizens and for Kosovo itself.”

“We are extremely surprised with the decision,” he said, “especially since Haradinaj was previously acquitted of the charges by a unanimous decision.”

Wednesday’s decision came a day before the U.N.’s highest judicial organ, the International Court of Justice, is expected to issue a nonbinding advisory opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Sixty-nine nations including the United States have recognized Kosovo, but Serbia has never accepted the legitimacy of that independence declaration.

The retrial comes as the war crimes tribunal is under pressure from the Security Council to wrap up its final cases and shut its doors for good.

The court has finished cases against 129 of the 161 suspects indicted by prosecutors. Two suspects remain on the run, former Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, a former leader of Croatian Serbs. The other cases — including one against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic — are still being tried or are in the appeals stage.

Associated Press writers Nebi Qena in Pristina, Kosovo, and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.

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