( NYTimes ) - The United Nations tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on Thursday acquitted Ramush Haradinaj, the former prime minister of Kosovo, of all charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, in a surprise decision that could inflame anti-Kosovar sentiment in Serbia just weeks after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence.
Mr. Haradinaj, a former guerrilla fighter who was a leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army in fighting against Serbian security forces in the late 1990s, was viewed as one of the most charismatic leaders to emerge from the Balkan wars and was treated as a hero by many Kosovars.
But he was vilified as a terrorist by Serbia, which still considers Kosovo a rebellious province, and his case drew charges of favoritism from prosecutors. Mr. Haradinaj was a crucial partner in Western efforts to bring peace to Kosovo, so much so that prosecutors in Kosovo and The Hague say the United Nations and Western governments bent over backward to prevent his prosecution, and that the sense of impunity around him scared away witnesses.
He was seen by the West as a force for stability in the region and, exceptionally, he was released by the court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, to return to active politics in Kosovo even after his indictment.
The prosecution's chief witness, Tahir Zemaj, and his son and nephew were shot dead during the investigation. Another witness, Kjutim Berisha, died two weeks before the trial when he was hit by a car in Podgorica, the Montenegren capital.
Mr. Hardinaj was acquitted after judges found that prosecutors had failed to prove a deliberate campaign to kill Serb civilians in Kosovo or expel them.
Mr. Haradinaj and two other men began to stand trial at the tribunal in The Hague in March, 2007, charged with killing 40 people in 1998.
The tribunal also acquitted one of the other two men, Idriz Balaj. The third accused man, Lahi Brahimaj, was sentenced to six years' imprisonment "for cruel treatment and torture of two persons" at the headquarters of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the court said.
The three were charged on 19 counts, including murder, torture, rape and cruel treatment.
Evidence presented by the prosecution "did not always allow the Chamber to conclude whether a crime was committed or whether the K.L.A. was involved as alleged", the tribunal said in a statement.
The court also judged that the ill-treatment, forcible transfer and killing of Serb and Roma civilians as well as Kosovar Albanian civilians was "not on a scale of frequency that would allow for a conclusion that there was an attack against a civilian population," the statement said.
Mr. Haradinaj's supporters said that there was never any evidence linking him directly to the crimes and suggested that the court charged him simply to appear evenhanded.
But prosecutors alleged that the United Nations administration in Kosovo repeatedly blocked the prosecution of Mr. Haradinaj.
The tribunal's top prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, referred to the trial in The Hague as "a prosecution that some did not want to see brought, and that few supported by their cooperation at both the international and local level."
In March 2004, during rioting across Kosovo, Mr. Haradinaj was credited with stopping rioters from attacking Kosovo's best-known Serbian Orthodox monastery. United Nations officials say he also helped ensure that a January 2005 visit by Serbia's president passed without incident.