Hague Acquits Serbia's Seselj in Yugoslav War Crimes Trial

  • Living in Serbia, Seselj had ignored order to return to court
  • Seselj considers suing Hague Tribunal for 14 million euros

Serbian nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj was found not guilty of crimes against humanity for his role in the wars that followed the bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia, allowing him to avoid jail term and focus on bringing his party back to parliament in an election next month.

The United Nations Hague Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia could not prove Seselj, 61, committed crimes against humanity, including murder, forced deportation, illegal imprisonment and other acts. Prosecutors wanted a 28-year sentence against him for recruiting paramilitary groups and inciting them to commit atrocities. Seselj, who lives in Serbia after being temporarily released from custody in 2014, may seek 14 million euros ($16 million) in damages from the tribunal, he said on Thursday.

“Following this verdict, Vojislav Seselj is now a free man,” judge Jean-Claude Antonetti said at the tribunal in The Hague on Thursday. The prosecution can appeal the verdicts that cleared Seselj “of all charges of the indictment.”

Seselj’s acquittal follows last week’s 40-year sentence for former Bosnian-Serb President Radovan Karadzic, the most senior Serb leader to be convicted of crimes against humanity., It may ease tensions in Serbia, where part of the population still supports the acts of war-time leaders even as the country tries to shrug off its bloody past to join the European Union. It could also help the fortunes of Seselj’s Radical Party, which advocates giving up the EU in favor of forming a union with Russia. The party, now polling at 5 percent before April 24 elections, stands to win more than 25 percent because of the ruling, Seselj said.

Deportation, Murder

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Flavia Lattanzi said the majority on the court had provided insufficient reasoning for its findings and failed to consider “the climate of intimidation to which Vojislav Seselj subjected the witnesses,” the tribunal said in a statement.

“The verdict is a shame for the court,” Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic said in Vukovar, Croatia. He said Seselj would be arrested if he comes to Croatia, news portal N1 reported. “This is about a man who committed acts of evil and never showed any remorse,” Oreskovic said.

Unlike Karadzic, Seselj wasn’t tried for genocide, although he was indicted for the deportation of tens of thousands of Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians from large areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia. The list of his charges also included the murder of many Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians, in Croatian and Bosnian municipalities, as well as “hate speech.”

“I knew they couldn’t prove anything against me,” said Seselj, who had ignored an order to return to custody in The Hague. A monetary demand for damages would be for all his “suffering during the detention period,” he said. Before the verdict, he tweeted that “I slept like a baby because my conscious is clear.”

Parliamentary Push

Following the court ruling, Seselj said he will focus on bringing his party back to parliament and is hoping to best the 20 percent to 25 percent result already expected “after this decision by the court.”

The ruling also removes a potential clash between the EU and Serbia, whose government had not commented on whether it would send Seselj back to serve his sentence if convicted. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who was a member of Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party in the 1990s, said Wednesday the verdict will have “lesser political significance” for Serbia than Karadzic’s sentencing.

While past governments have clashed with the EU over the reverberations following the wars in former Yugoslavia, including the recognition of Kosovo, Vucic has tried to thaw ties and wants to lead the country into the bloc in 2020.

“Our friends can only be those who didn’t bomb us,” Seselj said, referring to NATO bombing of Serb targets in Bosnia in 1995 and during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. “The West bombed Serbia in 1999 to help the Albanian separatists and terrorists take over Kosovo and to declare it independent” in 2008, he said.

Milosevic Allies

Seselj founded the Radical Party with current President Tomislav Nikolic in 1991, calling for re-unification of all Serbian territories during the Yugoslav wars. Nikolic, Vucic and central bank Governor Jorgovanka Tabakovic were prominent members until 2008, when they formed the Serbian Progressive Party and won elections four years later.

Seselj, Karadzic and Bosnian Serb war-time military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, who is also standing trial before the UN court, were all loyal to former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic was indicted and extradited to the international tribunal in 2001 and died before a verdict in 2006.

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