THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A U.N. war crimes tribunal on Thursday acquitted the former prime minister of Kosovo and two of his former Kosovo Liberation Army comrades for the second time of murdering and torturing Serbs and their supporters in Kosovo's war for independence.
The verdicts came in the U.N. court's first ever retrial, which was ordered after appeals judges branded the 2008 acquittal of former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and KLA fighter Idriz Balaj and the conviction of a third KLA commander, Lahi Brahimaj a "miscarriage of justice" because of widespread intimidation of prosecution witnesses.
The acquittals clear the way for a return to the political scene for Haradinaj, seen before his 2005 indictment as a unifying force in deeply divided Kosovo, but could complicate talks between Pristina and Belgrade on Kosovo's future.
His British lawyer, Ben Emmerson, confirmed that Haradinaj wants to return to power.
"With the consent of the people, he will soon be resuming his rightful position as the political leader of the country," Emmerson told reporters at the court.
Emmerson said Haradinaj told him he wants to lead a government representing all ethnic groups in Kosovo. "It is time, he says, for reconciliation."
Applause rang around the courtroom's public gallery, packed with supporters of the three defendants, when Presiding Judge Bakone Moloto delivered the vedicts.
In Kosovo's capital, Pristina, supporters set off fireworks and honked car horns. Others danced and clapped as they watched the verdicts on a giant screen.
The three men were to be released and returned to Kosovo later Thursday.
"Finally, after eight long years and two lengthy trials, this tribunal has done justice to Ramush Haradinaj, to his co-accused and to the people of Kosovo," Emmerson said.
Moloto said Serbs and their suspected supporters were beaten at a KLA compound in Kosovo and at least one of them died of his injuries. However, he said that there was no evidence Haradinaj was involved in the attacks or was part of a criminal conspiracy to mistreat civilians as a way of consolidating KLA control of part of Kosovo.
In fact, Moloto said, Haradinaj reprimanded one KLA fighter for abusing a Kosovo Albanian man, telling the fighter: "No such thing should happen anymore because this is damaging our cause."
Another witness told the court Haradinaj gave him food and accommodation before releasing him to his family.
Haradinaj quit as Kosovo's prime minister in 2005 after just 100 days in office when his indictment was announced by the tribunal, but he remains popular at home.
In Kosovo, large posters welcoming him back were hung well before the decision was announced in The Hague. Speculation was rife that Haradinaj would join the country's ruling coalition of former fellow fighter but current political rival, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci as he looks to broaden the range of participants and share public responsibility in crucial talks with Serbia.
For Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, which has been in decline since his trial, the return could herald a new era.
"We do hope that he will take a lot of opportunities and a lot of management in the state because we see that Kosovo has huge challenges ahead and therefore he has a role to play," said Besnik Tahiri, an official in Haradinaj's AAK party. "Hopefully he will continue where he was when he left (as PM) in 2005."
Serbian officials and media had been anticipating for days that Haradinaj would be acquitted less than two weeks after two Croatian generals were cleared of charges of killing and deporting Serbs in a 1995 military blitz, a judgment that sparked rage in Belgrade, where many see the tribunal as anti-Serb.
Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said before Thursday's announcement that Haradinaj's acquittal would have serious consequences for the EU-brokered negotiations between him and his Kosovo counterpart Thaci. But Dacic suggested that Serbia would not pull out of the talks that are expected to resume in early December.
"There are enough reasons to delay or cancel all that, but what would we gain? Nothing." Dacic has said. "We are not participating in the talks as a favor to someone, we are doing it for ourselves."
Serbia's government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic called the verdicts "another heavy blow for justice, dialogue and reconciliation in the region," and predicted they would trigger a storm of discontent among Serbs, particularly those in Kosovo.
"Haradinaj's acquittal means an amnesty for crimes against Serbs," he said.
Belgrade's liberal radio and TV station B-92 carried the headline, "A fresh slap in the face: Haradinaj freed."
Associated Press writers Nebi Qena in Pristina, Kosovo, and Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.