An Irish lawyer on befriending and defending an accused war criminal

Former prime minister of Kosovo Ramush Haradinaj was in Dublin for the launch of a book about his trial and acquittal at the Hague for war crimes. Its author recalls the man

My first taste of Kosovo came in April 2003. As a relic of the John Bruton-era Fine Gael backroom I had been feeding my appetite for politics with short assignments in the postwar Balkan states.

The 1995 Dayton Accords had put a stop to Slobodan Milosevic’s aggression in Bosnia and Croatia. But in the rush to end the immediate crisis Kosovo was left out of the deal. The Belgrade regime ratcheted up its oppression of Kosovo’s Albanian majority with a scarcely concealed agenda of ethnic cleansing aimed at securing Kosovo – Serbia’s Jerusalem – for Milosevic.

Within two years Kosovo had descended into a vicious war, which ended in June 1999, after Nato intervention.

I was in Sarajevo on a dank January day in 2003 when I received a call asking if I would come to Kosovo for a couple of months to work with Ramush Haradinaj (pronounced Hara-deen-eye), a commander of the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army who had turned politician. Haradinaj was 34 and described as a "tough-guy war hero" and as "clever and ruthless – with big ambitions".


This two-month political project became a journey in which I joined a project to build a new state, and befriended and defended Haradinaj, who would be indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a UN court in The Hague, on 37 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Kosovo was a UN protectorate at the time. I was told that there were “lots of stories” about Haradinaj. He was reputed to control all the petrol coming into Kosovo and said to be of interest to the tribunal.

I had learned to believe little that was said in that part of the world, however. Propaganda and lies were part of everyday politics – a legacy of communism, with its culture of informers and spies. I went to see for myself.

Days after I first arrived I asked Haradinaj about the rumours of war crimes. His answer was brief: everything he had done in the war he had done properly. It was up to me whether I believed him. No evidence would be offered. His word would have to suffice. I made a judgment call and hoped I was right.

Radical liberal

It turned out that the tough guy wanted a political platform similar to the Progressive Democrats’, our Fine Gael nemesis at the time. Haradinaj was a radical liberal: individualist and self-reliant but interventionist when circumstances demanded.

After Kosovo elections in October 2004, and coalition talks, Haradinaj became prime minister in December. He then said to me, “You promised that if I came to office you would come here and work for me, for our country.”

I remembered no such promise, but I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to help build a new state in the heart of Europe. Kosovo became my life.

Haradinaj served exactly 100 days as prime minister. During his brief tenure laws were passed, directives issued and executive orders signed. The late former British foreign secretary Robin Cook would later observe, “Kosovo has made more progress under him on key standards, such as minority rights and conditions for the return of Serb refugees, than in the previous five years.”

The indictment came in March 2005. Haradinaj resigned immediately and travelled voluntarily to The Hague. He would not hand the Belgrade regime the propaganda coup of a KLA fugitive from justice.

A day later I visited the former prime minister in a Dutch prison, where he asked me to take charge of his defence. Again I made a judgment call and hoped I was right.

I told him it could cost €5 million to get the defence team he would need. In fact it took €11 million, all of it donated by the people of Kosovo. I told him it could take two years out of his life (and mine). It took eight, four of which he spent in prison.

The trial transcripts reveal more than 100 prosecution witnesses and none at all for the defence. The evidence was so flawed that not a single defence rebuttal was needed.

Still, the process ground on interminably. The prosecution argued that Haradinaj “must have known” about crimes committed by others and “must have agreed” to their commission. Under close scrutiny the evidence showed the opposite. He was found not guilty in April 2008.

The prosecution made allegations of witness intimidation, but the UN in Kosovo repeatedly told the court that there was no evidence of witnesses being interfered with by Haradinaj or anyone acting on his behalf. In the end the court itself issued a strongly worded denial of these allegations.

International justice

The indictment caused considerable disquiet. The head of the UN mission in Kosovo, Søren Jessen-Petersen, spoke for many in that international community when he said that Haradinaj "demonstrated respect for the process and institutions of international justice". The tribunal and, in particular, the chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, had "failed to live up to the same high ideals".

There is no happy ending to the story. After his acquittal Haradinaj returned to Kosovo, but he had become marginalised in its political life. Kosovo itself has stagnated under incompetence and corruption.

In 2012, after a retrial, Ramush Haradinaj was acquitted a second time by the tribunal in The Hague.

Haradinaj could yet become prime minister again. If so he will face an immensely greater challenge than existed in 2005. I will be older and the task harder. But the opportunity I wanted 10 years ago – to be part of a nation-building exercise – may return.

Michael O'Reilly is a Dublin-based lawyer and a former Fine Gael strategist. His book, The Kosovo Indictment, is out now

Ramush Haradinaj: A deeply divisive figure

Ramush Haradinaj is a deeply divisive figure in the Balkans, adored in his native Kosovo but seen by many Serbs as a ruthless warlord who should be behind bars.

Haradinaj’s acquittal was a particularly bitter episode in Serbia’s long and unhappy history with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in The Hague. This is a UN court that Belgrade always said was anti-Serbian and blamed the country for all the former Yugoslavia’s woes.

A retrial ended in 2012 after Haradinaj was cleared of mistreating prisoners during the Kosovo war. He returned home to a rapturous welcome while UN prosecutors faced searching questions about why their case had crumbled for a second time.

When Haradinaj was first acquitted, in 2008, the chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, complained that intimidated witnesses had withdrawn or changed their evidence. When evidence was gathered for the retrial, however, the verdict was the same.

Some commentators said the court may have tried to prosecute Haradinaj in return for Belgrade’s co-operation – grudging and belated – in going after top Serb war-crime suspects such as Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. For Serbs, however, the failure of the prosecution was more proof that the UN court was unable or unwilling to properly conduct an investigation in Kosovo, where Haradinaj’s former rebel comrades are still revered and run the country.

Belgrade also suspects a US hand behind the affair. Prominent western politicians praised Haradinaj when he went voluntarily to The Hague, and he is tipped to return to the post of prime minister at some point – much to Belgrade’s displeasure.