THE HAGUE -- A Yugoslav war crimes tribunal acquitted a Bosnian Serb leader of genocide yesterday, and former president Slobodan Milosevic told a separate panel the charges he himself faces are "empty words" and a "mutilation of justice."
The verdict in the five-year trial of Radislav Brdjanin, wartime leader of the autonomous Krajina region of Bosnia, should encourage Milosevic, who launched his defense this week against charges of genocide and more than 60 other counts of war crimes.
Brdjanin, 56, a powerful Serb figure at the start of the Bosnian war in 1992, was convicted on eight of 12 charges and sentenced to 32 years in prison -- a surprisingly lengthy term in view of the acquittals on the most serious charges related to genocide and extermination.
Despite a Serb campaign of mass murder, torture, and deportations of non-Serbs, the court said the brutality fell short of genocide, which requires stringent proof the sole intent was to wipe out the Muslim and Croat communities.
The acquittal was a setback for prosecutors who placed genocide at the center of Milosevic's indictment. He is accused in the deaths of more than 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica in 1995. The court found Brdjanin complicit in the deaths of at least 1,669 Muslims and Croats.
The tribunal has set a high bar for a genocide conviction. Of the more than a dozen Serbs charged with genocide, only one, General Radislav Krstic, has been convicted -- and the charge was reduced on appeal to aiding and abetting genocide.
Yesterday, Milosevic concluded a 5-hour opening statement, denouncing his trial as "a farce, pure and simple."
The charges are a "sheer mutilation of justice. Nothing else," he said. "What it says there are empty words."
Milosevic did not address the specific charges he faces, instead arguing that the Serbs faced a conspiracy of persecution by Croats, Islamic fundamentalists, the United States, NATO, and the Vatican.
The court said it would announce today whether it will impose defense counsel on Milosevic, who has insisted on defending himself despite repeated bouts of sickness that have delayed the trial by months.