Former head of the Yugoslav army Momcilo Perisic has been acquitted of ordering troops to carry out war crimes during the wars in the 1990s.
Judges at the Hague overturned Perisic’s earlier conviction for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in Sarajevo and Srebenica and a 27-year prison sentence. They ordered his immediate release.
The conclusion of the United Nations war crimes judges was that Perisic had provided legitimate military support to the ethnic Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) forces in Bosnia, but had not ordered them to commit war crimes.
“While Mr Perisic may have known of VRS crimes, the Yugoslav Army aid he facilitated was directed towards the VRS’s general war effort rather than VRS crimes,” said Theodor Meron, president of the appeals chamber at the tribunal.
Rebel Serbs fought to carve out an ethnically Serb state in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 after its Muslims and Croats voted for independence from Serbian-led federal Yugoslavia.
Judges said he also was innocent of ordering Serbian forces to shell the Croatian capital Zagreb.
Serb forces committed some of the gravest crimes in post-war European history during Yugoslavia’s break-up, including the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, and the siege of Sarajevo in which more than 10,000 civilians died.
Victims expressed anger at the acquittal. “We are still digging up the bones of our sons, and we know all the evil came from Serbia,” said Munira Subasic, whose husband and son were killed in Srebrenica.
The acquittal means the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has not convicted a single Belgrade official for involvement in crimes in Bosnia and Croatia, which claimed tens of thousands of lives. Slobodan Milosevic, the long-serving Yugoslav president who presided over the break-up of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, died in detention in 2006 before the conclusion of his trial.