U.N. Court Acquits Former Kosovo PM of Crimes Against Humanity

A U.N. court acquitted Kosovo's former prime minister Thursday of murdering and torturing Serbs and their supporters during the province's battle to free itself of Serbia's rule in 1998.

Ramush Haradinaj, 39, who was a leader of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army during the war, was due to be released from a U.N. jail and to return to Kosovo on Friday. He was acquitted on all 37 counts of the murder, rape and torture of Serbs.

As presiding judge Alphons Orie announced the verdict, Haradinaj's supporters in the public gallery let out a loud cheer.

Lahi Brahimaj, a commander who served under Haradinaj, was convicted of two counts of torture and cruelty, and sentenced to six years imprisonment.

A third defendant and former rebel commander, Idriz Balaj, was acquitted of all charges.

The three-judge panel of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that the prosecution's case throughout lacked solid evidence on almost all allegations, dismissing much of the evidence as "vague, inconclusive or nonexistent."

But it also found that many witnesses were too afraid to testify, and some had to be threatened with contempt when they refused to appear.

"The chamber gained the strong impression that the trial was being held in an atmosphere where witnesses felt unsafe," Orie said.

The verdict will return Haradinaj to a Kosovo that has recently declared its independence from Serbia, and will allow him to resume his political career.

It was not immediately clear if prosecutors would appeal.

One of Haradinaj's defense lawyers, Michael O'Reilly, said his client "had at all times acted to prevent wrongdoing and to protect civilian lives."