THE HAGUE (AFP) — The former commander of Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica, Naser Oric, was cleared by a UN tribunal Thursday of war crimes against Serbs -- a decision he hailed as vindicating his men.
A hero in the eyes of Bosnian Muslims but vilified by Serbs, Oric was sentenced to two years' imprisonment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in June 2006 for crimes committed by his forces during Bosnia's 1992-95 war.
"The appeals chamber ... reverses Naser Oric's conviction (and) finds Oric not guilty," judge Wolfgang Schomburg of The Hague-based tribunal said Thursday.
Oric, 41, was initially found guilty of failing to prevent his subordinates killing six Bosnian Serb prisoners and maltreating others held in Srebrenica in 1992 and 1993.
He was freed upon sentencing, having spent more than three years in custody awaiting trial.
Both Oric and the prosecution appealed the sentence: Oric maintaining his innocence and the prosecution objecting that the penalty was too light. It had wanted 18 years.
Smiling broadly on Thursday, Oric told journalists: "Of course, I am very happy".
"We expected this, everyone who followed the trial expected the outcome," he said through his English-speaking legal representative Vasvija Vidovic.
Spending three years in detention was "part of my destiny," said Oric, adding: "Life goes on."
Asked whether the judgment vindicated the Muslim defence of Srebrenica, he said the community had been under siege.
"I don't think the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica committed real crimes. We were just fighting to survive, fighting for our lives."
Schomburg said the prosecution had failed to prove a link between Oric and the crimes committed by his underlings -- essential for a guilty verdict.
While the appeals chamber had no doubt that grave crimes were committed against Serb detainees in Srebrenica, this was not enough for a conviction.
"Criminal proceedings require evidence establishing beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is individually responsible for a crime before a conviction can be entered," said Schomburg.
Serbia condemned the decision.
Oric's acquittal was "another very serious blow to international justice," said a statement from Serbia's council for cooperation with the ICTY.
"Such a verdict could neither contribute to the implementation of justice, nor establishing the truth or reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia, one of the key goals of the ICTY."
Bruno Vekaric, spokesman for the prosecutor for Serbian war crimes, said his office was "deeply convinced" there was enough evidence to prove Oric was responsible for war crimes.
The leader of the main opposition Serb Democratic Party, Mladen Bosic, said the ruling demonstrated the tribunal was "political" rather than "an institution of justice."
Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said it was "a mockery of justice."
But families of Muslims killed in Srebrenica welcomed the ruling.
"How could someone ... question the one who defended himself at the site of genocide?" asked Munira Subasic, head of the Mothers of Srebrenica association.
In 1992, Srebrenica was flooded by thousands of Muslim refugees.
It was a UN-protected enclave until July 11, 1995, when it was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces who loaded thousands of men and boys onto trucks, executed an estimated 8,000 and threw their bodies into mass graves.
In Bosnia, popular poems are still chanted in Oric's glory for his defence of Srebrenica.
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