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Has Haradinaj Acquittal Boosted Serbian Radicals?

Analysts claim verdict could undermine tribunal cooperation by Belgrade and reduce chances of fugitives being arrested.
By Aleksandar Roknić

The acquittal of Kosovo’s former prime minister of war crimes charges last week could strengthen support for radical parties at Serbia’s parliamentary elections next month, say analysts.

They also believe it would now be harder for the Serbian government to justify handing over four remaining war crimes fugitives to the court – a crucial step if Serbia wants closer ties with the European Union.

Ramush Haradinaj, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, was cleared of charges of torture, murder, rape and deportation, with judges ruling that there had been no deliberate campaign to kill Serb civilians in Kosovo. One co-defendant, Idriz Balaj, was also acquitted, while a third, Lahij Brahimaj, was sentenced to six years in prison.

The judgment has already provoked anger in Serbia, with officials calling it “a mockery of justice”.

Former Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic said his ministry sent the tribunal 200,000 documents about Haradinaj and other members of the KLA accused of war crimes in Kosovo.

“In these documents, there were many victim and witness statements, several war diaries of KLA leaders and reports from Serbian judicial institutions that led to several hundred charges against Haradinaj,” said Batic.

However, in a statement, Haradinaj’s lawyers pointed out, “There was no evidence against [Haradinaj] either personally or as a member of a joint criminal enterprise as alleged by the prosecution.”

“It [was] clear from the evidence of prosecution witnesses, that far from having behaved in a criminal fashion, Mr Haradinaj had at all times acted to prevent wrong-doing and to protect civilian lives,” continued the statement, published on a website set up by Haradinaj’s defence.

While Serbia's National Council for Cooperation with the Hague tribunal said that it would appeal against the judgement at the United Nations, it insisted the decision would not stop Serbia working with the tribunal.

"It's important for Serbia that we continue to cooperate, despite the Haradinaj verdict,” council chairman Rasim Ljajic told Beta news agency this week. However, he said arresting war crimes fugitives could now be more difficult as police might be less motivated to do their job.

Dusan Ignjatovic, director of the council’s office, said the verdict would certainly harm relations between Belgrade and the Hague court. “This verdict united the Serbian public against the tribunal… I think the verdict in this case is one they won’t be proud of in the future, and it won’t help the peace and reconciliation process in the region,” Ignjatovic told IWPR.

Zoran Dragisic, a professor of security at the University of Belgrade, believed the verdict would now encourage the tribunal’s longstanding opponents in Serbia. “The tribunal doesn’t have the credibility to try serious cases any more. The Serbian state sent a lot of evidence to the tribunal…and everyone in Serbia who thought the tribunal was not an institution to be trusted was proved right,” he said.

“With this verdict, the tribunal claims that no one was responsible for war crimes in Kosovo against Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.”

Dragisic also doubted whether Serbia would now transfer the remaining fugitives – Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, Stojan Zupljanin and Goran Hadzic – to The Hague.

“The Serbian judiciary has been shown in a better light than the tribunal and I think that it is better to try Ratko Mladic and the rest of fugitives in Serbia. The chances of transferring Mladic and the remaining three indictees to The Hague is now lower than ever,” he said.

Dragisic thinks the Haradinaj verdict will strengthen the right wing in Serbia at the May 11 elections, making a victory for Vojislav Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party, SRS, possible. Seselj is currently on trial for war crimes at the tribunal. It is likely that the SRS would halt integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Dragan Popovic, international justice coordinator for the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, said the verdict would not actually make much difference because Serbia was hardly cooperating anyway.

“Serbian officials will use this verdict as an excuse for non-cooperation with the tribunal” he said. “We can all see that in Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s attitude. The Serb authorities could use Haradinaj’s acquittal to continue to frustrate attempts in Serbia to face up to the past.”

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Belgrade.

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