The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) acquitted Serbian ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj Thursday of all nine counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity brought against him in connection with the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
"Vojislav Seselj is now a free man," declared presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti in the court's ruling, stating that the prosecution failed to prove the existence of a criminal purpose and his participation in a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) with Serbian forces during the ethnic wars sparked by the collapse of Yugoslavia.
“With this acquittal on all the nine counts of the indictment, the arrest warrant issued by the appeals chamber on 17 June, 2015 is hereby rendered mute. Following this verdict Vojislav Seselj is now a free man,” said Antonetti.
Seselj blasts ITCY
At a news conference in Belgrade after the verdict, Seselj had harsh words for the ITCY process against him.
"This time, after so many proceedings and wrongly-accused Serbs given draconian punishments, there appears to be two honest and honorable judges who have resisted all the pressures from the outside, and who have given the only lawful verdict,” he said.
“The idea of a Greater Serbia remains powerful, with me or without me,” Seselj said. “I have contributed only a little with my overall political and war involvement."
In a 2-1 ruling, the three-judge panel said that Serbian plans to create a ”Greater Serbia” by uniting lands they considered Serb territory in Croatia and Bosnia were a “political goal” and not a criminal plan, as prosecutors alleged.
Speaking to reporters following the court ruling in The Hague, the ICTY chief prosecutor in the case, Serge Brammertz of Belgium challenged that argument, because the plan was often accompanied by military campaigns that drove thousands of non-Serb civilians out of their homeland and left thousands of others dead.
"I am absolutely convinced that victims' communities and many people will not be satisfied with this outcome. We, in large part, share their frustrations. We will, as an office, review carefully the arguments put forward by the trial chamber in order to determine if we are appealing this decision. ...The number of findings which really depart from what we consider the normal jurisprudence of the tribunal in relation to a number of factual findings, as for example, the absence of a wide spread and systematic attack against the civilian population or in relation to the hate speech which was considered more as, by the judges, as an encouragement more than incitement of committing crimes."
Following the ruling, Croatia's prime minister, Tihomir Oreskovic, said that the verdict was “shameful” and a “defeat of The Hague court and the prosecution."
Speaking to reporters during his visit to Vukovar in eastern Croatia, Oreskovic further said that Seselj is a man “who committed evil and did not show any remorse, neither then nor today.”
Oreskovic laid wreaths in memory of those who died in the 1991 battle of Vukovar. The town was besieged and destroyed by the Yugoslav army with a Serb majority and local rebel Serbs who opposed Croatia's independence. Thousands of people were killed and wounded in the battle of Vukovar in 1991.
Charges against Seselj
The 61-year-old Seselj was charged with nine counts by ITCY prosecutors.
Three were for crimes against humanity - persecution, deportation and inhumane acts of forcible transfer — and six were for war crimes — murder, torture and cruel treatment, wanton destruction, destruction or willful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion or education, plunder of public or private property.
He was accused of having directly committed, incited, aided and abetted those crimes committed by Serbian forces during the period from August 1991 until September 1993, and to have been part of their commission through his participation in a JCE.
Seselj was not in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. He surrendered to the ICC in 2003, but was allowed to return to Serbia in November 2014 for treatment of liver cancer.
Serb ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, center, holds a burning European Union flag in front of the war crimes court building in Belgrade, March 10, 2016.
He refused to return to The Hague to hear the verdict, setting fire to EU and NATO flags outside a Belgrade court earlier this month in an act of defiance.
Seselj plans to run for parliament in the coming election as leader of the far-right Serbian Radical party.
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