By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj was acquitted of crimes against humanity in a retrial on Thursday, a decision that could stir tensions between Serbia and its former province and clear the path for his return to mainstream politics.
The judges ruled that there was no evidence that Haradinaj, then a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and two accomplices had taken part in a criminal plan to drive ethnic Serbs out of the province by mistreating them.
"On the contrary, the evidence establishes that, when he heard about the mistreatment of individuals, Haradinaj said no such thing should happen because this is damaging of our cause," the presiding judge, Bakone Justice Moloto, said.
Haradinaj was first acquitted in 2008, but appeal judges ordered a partial retrial, saying the prosecution should have been given more time to make its case.
Idriz Balaj, a former commander of a special KLA unit known as the Black Eagles, and Lahi Brahimaj, Haradinaj's uncle and a member of the KLA's general staff, were also acquitted in the retrial. Brahimaj has already served the six-year sentence he was given for torture at his first trial.
Judges ruled on Thursday that ethnic Serbs and Albanians had been mistreated in camps controlled by the KLA, but found that nothing linked Haradinaj to these incidents.
On one occasion, Moloto said, Haradinaj had "offered food and accommodation" to an escaped detainee before returning him to his family.
There were gasps and cheers in the courtroom when Haradinaj's acquittal was announced. Fireworks were set off in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, where several hundred people stood in the rain watching the verdict live on a big screen in front of the government building.
Haradinaj, a former nightclub bouncer, was prime minister for only a few months before he resigned in 2005 after being indicted by the U.N. tribunal.
(Additional reporting by Radosa Milutinovic in The Hague and Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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