By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia sharply criticized the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on Wednesday over recent decisions to free two Croatian generals and a Kosovo Albanian former guerilla commander, describing the court as careless and ineffective.
Last month, the most senior Croatian military officer convicted of war crimes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, General Ante Gotovina, was freed on appeal in a decision that is straining already fraught relations between Croatia and its old enemy, Serbia.
Gotovina, hailed as a hero at home but reviled in neighboring Serbia, was freed along with Croatian police commander Mladen Markac.
The majority opinion in the court's appeals chamber was that the original trial judges erred in declaring artillery attacks ordered by Gotovina and Markac unlawful. The appeals judges also found no evidence of systematic plans to forcibly deport Serb civilians from the Krajina region of Croatia.
Weeks after that decision, the Hague-based court acquitted Ramush Haradinaj, a Kosovo Albanian former guerrilla commander who served briefly as prime minister, of crimes against humanity in a retrial at the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin made clear that Moscow, a strong ally of Serbia, was outraged by the decisions.
"Recent events around ICTY ... are of deep concern to us," he told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the Yugoslavia court and a similar tribunal for crimes in Rwanda.
"In its work, the ICTY demonstrates neither fairness nor effectiveness," Churkin said. "We are surprised at how blithely, even carelessly, a 3-to-2 vote quashed a unanimous verdict (in) a trial, one justified by many years of investigation."
"As a result, the question of who is guilty for hundreds killed and for the exile of over a quarter million of Serbs from their place of residence remains open," he said. "Justice was not done."
Gotovina was indicted for crimes against humanity, war crimes, mass killings, oppression and the deportation of the Serbian population.
Serbia has also reacted with anger, saying last month the tribunal had forfeited the right to be considered neutral.
'HIGH STANDARDS OF JUSTICE'
German Ambassador Peter Wittig praised the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda for upholding "high standards of justice" and fairness, and called for cool heads after recent controversial decisions.
"While we recognize that some recent judgments of the ICTY have been met with strong emotions, we call upon all to deal with such emotions in a responsible manner," Wittig said.
In the case of Haradinaj, judges ruled there was no evidence to support charges against him of crimes against humanity during the 1998-99 war between guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, and security forces under late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Churkin also complained about that case.
"Both referenced verdicts of the ICTY discredit the idea of international criminal justice," Churkin said.
Churkin also complained about the delay of trials related to the former Balkan wars, at least one of which was not expected to end until 2017. He said Russia would tie its willingness to consent to future budgets of the tribunal to compliance with clear timetables for concluding trials and wrapping up its work.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)