Image: Milan Milutinovic
Icty Via Aptn  /  AP
Prosecutors are deciding whether to appeal the acquittal of former Serb President Milan Milutinovic on war-crimes charges. He is shown standing in a U.N. court at the Hague, Netherlands, on Thursday. Sitting at right is co-defendant Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, who was found guilty of several charges.
updated 2/26/2009 7:33:18 PM ET 2009-02-27T00:33:18

U.N. judges on Thursday acquitted former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic of ordering a deadly campaign of terror against Kosovo Albanians, saying he had no role in what they ruled was a criminal plot to drive ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.

The tribunal ordered Milutinovic released from custody, but it convicted five other senior Serbs and gave them prison sentences of between 15 and 22 years. It was the court's first judgment establishing widespread Serb crimes in Kosovo.

Milutinovic's acquittal was a blow to prosecutors who three years ago lost their chance of convicting former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic of similar crimes when he died of a heart attack before his trial ended.

In what was as close to a guilty verdict for Milosevic himself as the court has ever come, presiding judge Iain Bonomy of Scotland said Milosevic was the most powerful commander of Serb troops and military police who carried out a campaign of murder, rape and deportations that forced nearly 800,000 ethnic Albanians to flee Kosovo before NATO airstrikes forced a Serb withdrawal in mid-1999.

"In practice, it was Milosevic, sometimes termed the 'Supreme Commander' who exercised actual command authority over the (Serb army) during the NATO campaign," Bonomy said.

The court ruled that the plot was led by Milosevic and that Milutinovic had no role.

The five convicted of involvement in the campaign were: former Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, ex-Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Dragoljub Ojdanic, former army generals Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic and Serbian police Gen. Sreten Lukic.

Sainovic, Pavkovic and Lukic were found guilty of charges of deportation, forcible transfer, murder and persecution and each given 22-year prison sentences.

Ojdanic and Lazarevic were convicted of deportation and forcible transfer of civilians but acquitted of murder and persecution. They each got 15 years.

Lawyers for Sainovic and Ojdanic said they would appeal.

Brutal campaign
Prosecution spokeswoman Olga Kavran said prosecutors will study the lengthy judgment before deciding whether to appeal.

However, prosecutors welcomed the judgment, saying it proved Serbian forces engaged in a brutal campaign to drive Albanians out of Kosovo. It also rejected the defendants' claims that many Albanians fled the country because of NATO's bombing campaign, Kavran said.

Among crimes judges said prosecutors proved were mass murders of Albanian men, the rape of four women and the killing of eight more. Serb forces also buried scores of bodies in mass graves in Serbia in an attempt to conceal their crimes, the judgment said.

Kosovo's deputy prime minister, Hajredin Kuci, said the judges had made "the right decision."

Ethnic Albanian Shefki Gashi, whose brother and 79-year-old father were among more than 20 people killed by Serbian forces in an April 1999 attack on the village of Mramor, welcomed the verdicts after hearing them on television.

"It is a sentence that brings some satisfaction, however small, for the likes of us that have lost our relatives and most loved ones," he said.

Indifference in Belgrade
There was little interest in Belgrade in the verdicts, although they were broadcast live on state television.

Most residents ignored the rulings and the Serbian parliament was discussing economic measures the government is taking to counter the effects of the global crisis.

The current head of Milosevic's Socialist Party, Ivica Dacic, said that the verdicts have confirmed that "this entire process was political."

Dacic who is Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister in the current Serbian government, said that "our position is that all who committed war crimes should be punished but it is absolutely certain that the Serbian state did not systematically commit genocide or crimes against other nations in the former Yugoslavia or within Serbia."

Rasim Ljajic, the Serbian government official in charge of ties with the tribunal, said the verdicts will "add to anti-Hague sentiments" in Serbia.

Ljajic said it was inevitable that the Serbian public would contrast the convictions with the acquittal of former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. This, Ljajic said "will increase the impression about the Hague tribunal's double standards."

The tribunal has indicted 161 suspects, most of them Serbs, and wrapped up cases against 116 of them.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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