A UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague acquitted Serbian nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj of war crimes and crimes against humanity on March 31.
The decision of the court to release Seselj is expected to lead to a moderate increase in tensions in the region. The verdict, which comes a week after the conviction of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, has already sparked an angry reaction in Zagreb. Seselj is a particularly divisive figure, who has continued to speak out in favour of a “Greater Serbia” that encompasses much of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia.
Seselj was accused of war crimes against Croats and Muslims in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Serbian province of Vojvodina in 1991-1993 during the Yugoslavian civil war.
He was charged with of nine counts of individual criminal responsibility for persecution on political, racial or religious grounds, forcible deportation, murder, torture, wanton destruction, destruction, or willful damage to religious and educational institutions and plunder of public and private property.
The Hague prosecution asked the court to find Seselj guilty and send him to jail for 28 years. However, Jean-Claude Antonetti, the presiding judge at the trial, said the prosecution failed to sufficiently support its allegations that Seselj committed crimes against humanity.
“Seselj is a free man,” said Antonetti.
He added that the prosecution had failed to prove the existence of a joint criminal enterprise. There was a unanimous decision only on one of the nine counts of the indictment.
On the charge of crimes against humanity Antonetti said the prosecution "had failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that there was a widespread and systematic attack against the non-Serb civilian population in large areas of Croatia and Bosnia ... The evidence tendered and considered establishes instead that there was an armed conflict between enemy military forces with civilian components."
Seselj - known as “Duke Voja” in Serbia - was not present for the reading of the verdict, but he told a press conference in Belgrade on March 31 that the “Greater Serbia idea is immortal”.
He also announced that he had asked for €12mn in compensation for his suffering in custody while waiting the verdict, as he claimed to have fallen victim to numerous illness. He added that he might request an additional €2mn for the final two years’ wait.
“I passed through the process without punishment but I could have got at least something to help Serbian enemies inside and outside Serbia to not be angry,” Seselj.
The 61-year-old radical turned himself in to The Hague Tribunal in early 2003 and was kept in detention until late 2014 when he was granted provisional release on medical grounds. He went on hunger strike several times during the trial.
Croatian prime minister Tihomi Oreskovic has already described the ruling as “disgraceful”.
“It is a defeat of the Hague court and the prosecution. I am in Vukovar today where [Seselj] did evil and showed no remorse. He set Croatian and EU flags on fire. I hope that Serbia will also react because the road toward the EU is the right road and I hope that our neighbours will behave in the right way," Oreskovic told regional broadcaster N1, adding that Zagreb might continue to block Serbia's EU membership talks unless Serbia "behaves in the right way."
However, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic told journalists on March 30 that he was “indifferent” to the verdict in Seselj’s trial.
Local media in Serbia report that prime minister Aleksandar Vucic’s government will not release any official statement before April 1, when a press conference with local and foreign media has been scheduled.
Seselj was one of Serbia’s most popular politicians in the early 1990s, thanks to his promotion of “traditional Serbian values” and the idea of “Greater Serbia” which stipulated that all Serbs in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia should live in a single state. As well as serving in the civil war in Bosnia and Croatia, he also recruited fighters to the Serb side.
Seselj formed the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in 1991 together with a group of nationalists that included Nikolic. The SRS joined the government alongside the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) led by Slobodan Milosevic, who also stood trial in The Hague but died in 2006 before the verdict was announced.
The SRS has been in opposition since Serbia’s first democratic government took office in 2000. Both Nikolic and Vucic split from the SRS in 2008 to form the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which unlike the SRS is in favour of EU integration.
The SRS will field candidates in the April 24 parliamentary election, but it is not clear whether it will pass the 5% threshold to enter the parliament. During the 2014 election Seselj was still in The Hague and the party did not take any seats, but it may do better this time around now he is actively campaigning. The verdict could also help Seselj to secure seats in the upcoming election, which would most likely lead to more radical posturing against the EU and Serbia’s increasingly pro-Western orientation.