Former Bosniak commander Naser Oric was on trial in Sarajevo on charges that he killed three Serb prisoners while defending Srebrenica from Serb attacks during the 1992-1995 war.
Former Bosnian military commander Naser Oric, hailed by supporters as the heroic “defender of Srebrenica”, was acquitted Friday by a local court of war crimes during the country’s 1990s conflict.
“Naser Oric and” his fellow fighter “Sabahudin Muhic are acquitted of charges of having committed during the war ... crimes against prisoners,” judge Tihomir Lukes said.
Oric, 51, is celebrated by fellow Bosnian Muslims - also known as Bosniaks - for commanding the defence of Srebrenica, where some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered in a 1995 massacre that was the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II.
He was on trial in Sarajevo on charges that he killed three Serb prisoners in the area at the start of the 1992-95 war, which pitted the country's Serb, Muslim and Croat communities against each other.
Bosnian Muslim military figures have already been tried and condemned in Bosnia for crimes committed during the inter-ethnic conflict, but none of them had Oric's aura or importance.
"The proceedings against Oric are very sensitive," said Erna Mackic, a journalist specialised in war crimes cases.
"Whatever the judgement is, it will be strongly criticised by one of the parties that will be unhappy," she told AFP.
Acquitted in The Hague
For years, perpetrators in the most serious cases were tried by the Hague-based UN tribunal set up after the 1990s conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Those judges overwhelmingly convicted Serbs in the Bosnian war: 52 in total, compared to 17 Croats and six Bosnian Muslims, according to a count by local media.
But with the UN tribunal officially wound up in December 2017, local courts have been left to carry on the work.
In 2008 he was acquitted on appeal by the UN war crimes court on charges of not doing enough to protect Serb prisoners of war.
Unhappy with the verdict, Belgrade in 2014 launched an international warrant, which eventually saw him extradited to his home country to face the current charges against him.
His subsequent acquittal in October 2017 outraged Serb victims' groups.
A retrial was ordered for procedural reasons and the verdict, bound to be controversial, will be delivered on Friday.
Oric's troops resisted a more than three-year-long the siege of Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic's troops.
But while Oric left the ill-fated town along with some of his officers for a meeting in Sarajevo, the UN-protected Muslim enclave was captured in July 1995.
Serb forces slaughtered more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the days that followed Srebrenica's fall.
The atrocity was deemed genocide by the international justice.
The UN court last year sentenced Mladic to life imprisonment including for the Srebrenica massacre while Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in jail.
Nearly 2,500 Serbs killed
But many ethnic Serbs perceive Oric as a "butcher" responsible for crimes during attacks on their villages in the Srebrenica area to drive them out of their homes.
Victims groups estimate that 2,428 Serb soldiers and civilians were killed in the area during the war.
Some see the condemnation of Oric as essential for reconciliation in Bosnia.
But for Bosnian Muslim mother Kada Hotic, from an association of Srebrenica women, such a verdict would be a "shame and insult for (Muslim) victims."
Her son, husband and two brothers were killed in the 1995 massacre.
"The Serbs want Naser Oric to be condemned, believing that his condemnation could alleviate (their guilt for) the genocide that they committed in Srebrenica," she said.
The Balkan country remains deeply along ethnic lines. Half of its population of 3.5 million are Muslims, while ethnic Serbs and Croats make about 30 and 15 percent respectively.
After the war Oric kept a low profile, while his name sometimes appeared in local media being linked with alleged criminal activities.
In 2009 he was sentenced to two years in jail for arms possession, but was granted a presidential pardon.
A passionate hunter and bodybuilder the 51-year-old is often presented as a businessman in the media.
In a rare television appearance in 2013 Oric said he was raising cattle in the mountains.
If Oric and Muhic are convicted they can appeal but if they are acquitted the case would be closed.