UN prosecutor to appeal after Yugoslav acquittals attacked

The chief prosecutor at the UN Yugoslav war crimes court said Monday he shared victims' dismay at a raft of recent acquittals that have sparked an unprecedented storm of criticism and allegations of US interference.

"I understand the disappointment felt by many, especially survivor communities following the series of recent acquittals," Serge Brammertz said in a statement.

"My office shares that disappointment," Brammertz wrote.

Brammertz's statement came after a letter written by International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) judge Frederik Harhoff was leaked earlier this month.

In it Harhoff claimed that the tribunal's president, US judge Theodor Meron, had pressured other judges to acquit leading Croatian and Serbian officers, possibly under pressure from the US.

He said the court was moving towards a policy that commanders could only be convicted if it could be proven that they knew of their subordinates' intention to commit crime.

Harhoff suggested that US or Israeli officials were involved in the acquittals.

Meron declined to comment on the allegations.

The leaked letter caused an international storm which has threatened to undermine the credibility of the Hague-based ICTY, the UN's oldest international tribunal which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Brammertz said he was "concerned about destructive elements in the debate that has followed the letter's publication. However, it is not appropriate or helpful for this office to enter into the debate."

Until late last year, Harhoff's letter said, "it has been more or less set practice at the court that military commanders were held responsible for war crimes that their subordinates committed" during the Bosnian war.

"But then the court's appeals chamber suddenly back-tracked last autumn," Harhoff wrote, saying he had the "uncomfortable feeling that the court has changed the direction of pressure from the 'military establishments' in certain dominant countries."

Now, "most cases will lead to commanding officers walking free from here on."

"So the American (and Israeli) leaders can breathe a sigh of relief," Harhoff wrote.

Harhoff cited the acquittals of leading Croatian and Serbian officers, including two top Croat generals and a former right-hand man of the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Croat generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac walked free on appeal mid-November last year after initially being jailed for 24 and 18 years respectively for murdering Croatian Serbs following the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

Yugoslav ex-army chief Momcilo Perisic's 27-year-sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity was overturned in February, with judge Meron saying at the time that Perisic could not be linked directly to the crimes.

The former Milosevic aide's acquittal was hailed by defence lawyers, who said it confirmed Belgrade had no hand in the crimes during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia in which some 100,000 people died.

In late May, Milosevic's intelligence chief Jovica Stanisic and his deputy Franko Simatovic were cleared of running Bosnian death squads, with judges saying the two could not have known that the units would commit such crimes.

Milosevic himself died in 2006 while in the ICTY's custody where he was on trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Brammertz said that his office would file an appeal of the Stanisic and Simatovic acquittals by Friday.

"We consider that the... judgement contains several serious errors, leading to an unjust outcome that should be corrected," the Belgian prosecutor said.

In the case of Perisic, the judges' test for aiding and abetting in war crimes "has no foundation in customary international law, is contrary to prior Appeals Chamber jurisprudence, lacks coherence as a legal doctrine and undermines respect for international humanitarian law."

The prosecutor's office is also looking at Gotovina and Markac's appeal, to see if they can launch a review of their acquittals on appeal.

Meanwhile, defence lawyers at the ICTY on Monday attacked Harhoff's letter as "sensational and irresponsible allegations that threaten to tarnish 20 years of progress towards ever-fairer trials."

"These allegations are an insult to the institution, and to all those who have worked so hard to establish the tribunal's integrity," the ICTY'S Association of Defence Counsel said in a statement.