THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – A U.N. war crimes tribunal Thursday ordered a Bosnian Croat commander’s early release from prison after clearing him of responsibility in a 1993 massacre, a decision that could make it harder to convict high-ranking officials accused of masterminding ethnic violence in the Balkans.

Overturning a ruling by a lower chamber, the five-member panel of judges dismissed 16 of 19 war crimes charges against Gen. Thiomir Blaskic, exonerating the 43-year-old of ordering ethnic bloodshed in Bosnia. The judges upheld lesser charges of illegal detainment and inhumane treatment of Muslim prisoners. His sentence was reduced from 45 to nine years.

A summary of the 300-page ruling read out in court found that prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Blaskic planned or even knew about war crimes being committed by his forces.

The appeals chamber also said that it had taken into account Blaskic’s good behavior, clear prior record, poor health, voluntary surrender and his young children.

“The trial chamber also erred in failing to consider the appellant’s real and sincere remorse,” the ruling said.

Tribunal President Theodor Meron ordered Blaskic be set free on Monday, accepting his request for early release after serving more than eight years in prison.

The judges cleared Blaskic of responsibility for the infamous 1993 Ahmici massacre of more than 100 Bosnian Muslims, including 32 women and 11 children, as well as a series of attacks in central Bosnia during the 1992-95 war.

Residents of the mostly Muslim village gathered in the main square Thursday and expressed disbelief at the judgment.

“I am shocked and bitter. This is a farce,” said 46-year-old Hasrudin Bilic.

In the nearby town of Vitez, which is mostly ethnic Croat, there was jubilation. “I am thrilled. He was innocent and now the world has acknowledged it,” said 55-year-old Stipe Blaz.

Judith Armatta of the Washington-based Coalition for International Justice called the ruling shocking and said “it will have a much broader affect” on cases at the tribunal, making it harder to link crimes to officials in positions of authority.

The ruling could help the cases of other Bosnian Croats, including Dario Kordic and Mario Cerkez, who were found guilty of coordinating ethnic violence in central Bosnia and who are appealing their convictions.

It was unclear how the decision would affect the case of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, on trial at the tribunal for genocide and other charges.

During Blaskic’s command of Bosnian Croat forces fighting Bosnian Muslims, the court said that efforts had been made to deter crimes and that his alleged criminal role in Ahmici had not been proven.

The court, formally known as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, was established a decade ago to prosecute the most senior perpetrators of war crimes during the breakup of the former communist country.

Some 50 suspects have gone on trial, and eight have already served their sentences. The court, which has no death penalty, has issued one life sentence.

AP-ES-07-29-04 1831EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.