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UN court frees Yugoslav general

War crimes verdict voided

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — In a stunning reversal, UN appeals judges on Thursday acquitted the former chief of the Yugoslav National Army of aiding and abetting atrocities by rebel Serbs, including the Srebrenica massacre, by providing them with military aid during the Balkan wars.

General Momcilo Perisic, a former close ally of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, had been sentenced to 27 years in 2011 after being convicted of crimes including murder, inhumane acts, and persecution. The judges ordered him freed immediately.

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The judgment is a rare victory for Serbs at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, where most of the convicted suspects have been rebel Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. It also supported Belgrade’s often-stated assertion that it did not deliberately assist in Bosnian Serb atrocities and underscores how hard it is for international courts to prosecute senior officials seen as pulling the strings but not acting directly.

The court’s most ambitious attempt to link Belgrade to Balkan war atrocities ended inconclusively when Milosevic died of a heart attack in his cell in The Hague in 2006 before a verdict could be reached in his trial on charges of fomenting violence as the former Yugoslavia crumbled.

While linking senior officials in one country to crimes by rebels in another is difficult, it can be done.

Another high-profile case that played out in a different Hague courtroom, the prosecution of Charles Taylor, saw the former Liberian president convicted of aiding and abetting rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone during that African nation’s brutal civil war. Taylor has appealed his conviction and 50-year sentence.

In court, Perisic looked down as Judge Theodor Meron said the convictions were overturned in a 4-1 ruling. His acquittal cannot be further appealed.

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