Serbians reacted angrily at the acquittal of a former Kosovo guerrilla leader by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), less than two weeks after the court freed two Croatian military commanders who were accused of war crimes. EurActiv Serbia reports.
The acquittal of ex-Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leader Ramush Haradinaj was met by fierce criticism of The Hague tribunal's work.
Serbian officials said the decision was a blow to international justice and made the process of reconciliation in the region more complicated.
"This verdict raises a dilemma about whether the international community wants crimes to be investigated and the perpetrators punished, and the process of reconciliation started, or if it wants to keep the region in a state of constant crisis,” a government statement said. “The government of the Republic of Serbia believes that selective justice and the cover-up of crimes do not lead to stability."
"This verdict abolishes the horrific crimes and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and Metohija, and makes the desecration of justice by eliminating and intimidating witnesses legitimate," statement added. Metohija refers to the western region of Kosovo.
Belgrade considers that the tribunal has lost credibility and has shown bias in acquitting those accused of crimes against Serbians. After the acquittal of Croatian commanders Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, the Serbian government reduced cooperation with The Hague tribunal to technical level, and suspended delivery of documentation to the court.
President calls for Mladić to be released
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić stated on 29 November that, after the tribunal's acquittal of Haradinaj, "all Serbs should be released" by this court.
Among those indicted are General Ratko Mladić, called by Western media “the butcher of Bosnia” for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Radical party and former political mentor of Nikolić.
"This is the moment when all Serbs should be released from The Hague tribunal, because if [Operation] Storm was not a crime, if Haradinaj committed no crime, then where will they find criminals among politicians, army commanders, the police? I expect the release of all Serbs who are held by the Hague tribunal," Nikolić told reporters.
The leaders of almost all political parties in Serbia fiercely condemned the ICTY decision to acquit Haradinaj.
Serbian officials blame the tribunal for omissions and errors, primarily regarding the protection of witnesses in the Haradinaj case.
Prosecutor: 19 witnesses killed
The Serbian war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukčević, stated recently that "19 potential witnesses in the Haradinaj case have been killed," and suggested that this is the result of the tribunal's "sloppiness and unprofessional work."
Prosecutors at The Hague dismissed the allegations.
There is no proof that any witness was killed for being on the list for the Haradinaj trial, said a representative of the prosecution, Frederick Swinnen. He recalled that the prosecution was always stressing that witness protection in Kosovo is a major problem and that, for this reason, the tribunals' Appeals Chamber accepted the prosecution's appeal and ordered the re-trial of Haradinaj in 2010, who was acquitted after his first trial in 2008.
The chairman of the National Council for cooperation with the Hague tribunal, Rasim Ljajić, said on 29 November that it was true that none of the witnesses who testified before the tribunal were killed, but it said it was also true that “many potential witnesses, who could have testified about the crimes, mysteriously vanished or were killed.”
Serbian right-wing to gain?
Besides complicating cooperation in the region, the acquittals could cause the growth of popularity of right-wing organisations in Serbia and contribute to the drop in the population's confidence in European integration.
Meanwhile, the tribunal's ruling was celebrated in Pristina with fireworks, and Haradinaj was greeted by several thousand people at the Pristina airport. Haradinaj, a former prime minister of Kosovo and the leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, announced his return to political life.
The Kosovo authorities welcomed the verdict as proof that the fight of the Kosovo Liberation Army was not a joint criminal enterprise, but the fight for freedom.