Former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj was acquitted of war crime charges for the second time this week, after a lengthy retrial that was the first of its kind for the Hague tribunal.
Haradinaj, formerly a commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, was acquitted of all 37 counts against him when his first trial ended in 2008. The charges included the murder and torture of Serb, Albanian and Roma civilians during the late 1990s conflict between Serbian security forces and the KLA in Kosovo.
Two other KLA members, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj, stood trial alongside Haradinaj. Balaj, too, was acquitted in the original trial, while Brahimaj was found guilty of cruel treatment and torture, and was sentenced to six years in prison with credit for time served since his surrender to the tribunal in 2005.
Both Balaj and Brahimaj were acquitted along with Haradinaj this week. Like him, they were immediately released from detention in The Hague, and returned to Kosovo a few hours after the verdict was read out on November 29.
The partial retrial stems from a July 2010 appeals judgement which found that trial judges “failed to appreciate the gravity of the threat that witness intimidation posed to the trial’s integrity”, and that they placed too much emphasis “on ensuring that the prosecution took no more than its pre-allotted time… irrespective of the possibility of securing potentially important testimony”.
Appeals judges subsequently ordered a partial retrial so that prosecutors could obtain testimony from two witnesses who had refused to testify during the original proceedings. They ruled that Haradinaj and Balaj should be retried on six counts of murder, cruel treatment and torture, and Brahimaj retried on four of those counts.
The partial retrial began in August 2011, but dragged on for several months due to difficulties in securing the testimony of a final protected witness. That witness did end up testifying, but at an undisclosed location and entirely in closed session. Closing arguments were held at the end of June 2012. (See Haradinaj Trial: Prosecutors Ask for Witness to be Discounted .)
All the charges in the retrial concerned a “makeshift detention facility” in Jablanica, Kosovo, located next to Brahimaj’s family compound, which doubled as the KLA headquarters in the town. Prosecutors say this detention facility was used to beat, torture and imprison those who were suspected of being Serbian collaborators, regardless of their ethnicity.
While reading out the retrial verdict in open court, Judge Bakone Justice Moloto noted that a “central allegation” in the retrial was the alleged existence of a joint criminal enterprise, JCE, between the three defendants to unlawfully “remove or mistreat” Kosovo Serb civilians and others perceived to be collaborating with Serbian forces.
Judge Moloto said the prosecution presented only circumstantial evidence for the existence of a JCE, including communiqués from the KLA general staff containing information about attacks or “measures undertaken by the KLA against collaborators with the Serbian authorities”.
The chamber found that “the information contained in the communiqués may have been exaggerated or altered for propaganda purposes” and that it “was often vague and lacked details as to the time and place of the incident, the identity of the perpetrator, the identity of the victims or their civilian or military status”.
Judges also discounted the alleged “blacklists” – lists of people apparently suspected of being disloyal to the KLA – submitted as evidence by the prosecution. The actual purpose of these lists was not established, and did not support the existence of a JCE, Judge Moloto said.
The chamber did note that civilians were mistreated on several occasions by KLA soldiers. They found that defendant Brahimaj beat one witness, identified by the number 6, and also participated in the torture and cruel treatment of three other men at the Jablanica compound in July 1998. However, the chamber noted that these incidents did not appear as charges against Brahimaj in the current indictment.
Judge Moloto said that if any “common plan” existed, it might have been between Brahimaj, two of his brothers, and other KLA soldiers.
“Such a common plan is not alleged in the present indictment, and the issue is outside the scope of these proceedings,” he stressed.
“Even if the existence of such a common plan were established… there is nothing in the evidence to indicate that Ramush Haradinaj or Idriz Balaj may have been involved,” the judge continued.
Judge Moloto pointed out that when Haradinaj found out that a Kosovo Albanian man called Skender Kuci was being detained and badly mistreated, he went to Jablanica to secure his release and told one of Brahimaj’s brothers that “no such thing should happen any more because it is damaging our cause”.
Furthermore, when an individual – who appeared as a witness identified by the number 3 – was brought to Haradinaj after being apprehended by Brahimaj, “Haradinaj offered food and accommodation to Witness 3 and released him to his family”.
“No credible evidence has been presented by the prosecution to establish that Ramush Haradinaj was even aware of the crimes committed at the KLA compound in Jablanica,” Judge Moloto said, adding that the same was true for Balaj, the third co-accused.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.