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UN Court to Hear Appeal in Serbian Lawmaker's Acquittal

Serbia's extreme nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj speaks during a press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, Dec. 7, 2017.

A prosecutor urged United Nations judges Wednesday to overturn the acquittals of a prominent Serbian ultranationalist on atrocity charges, saying that failure to do so would inflict lasting damage to the legacy of a groundbreaking war crimes tribunal.

Prosecutor Mathias Marcussen told a five-judge appeals panel that the 2016 acquittals of Vojislav Seselj on nine war crimes and crimes against humanity charges were so deeply flawed that they must be reversed or a new trial ordered.

“Justice has not been done,” Marcussen said. He argued that the three-judge trial bench that found Seselj not guilty at the end of his marathon trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia made critical errors of fact and law and failed to properly evaluate all the evidence.

At trial, prosecutors accused Seselj of crimes including persecution, murder and torture and demanded a 28-year sentence for his support of Serb paramilitaries during the region's bitter, bloody wars in the early 1990s. Prosecutors argue that Seselj's actions were part of a plan to drive Croats and Muslims out of large areas of Croatia and Bosnia that leaders in Belgrade considered Serb territory.

Marcussen said that allowing Seselj's acquittals to stand would be “not only an affront to the victims of the alleged crimes, it would also seriously undermine the credibility” of the tribunal and the institution called the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals which has been established to deal with appeals and other legal issues left pending when ad hoc tribunals like the Yugoslav court close their doors for good.

A tribunal that prosecuted cases arising from Rwanda's genocide has already closed and the Yugoslav tribunal formally shuts down at the end of December. Seselj's appeal is being handled by the new mechanism.

Seselj, who is a Serbian lawmaker, did not attend Wednesday's hearing. Judges gave him 10 days to respond in writing after he receives a transcript of the hearing in his native language.

Trial judges acquitted Seselj in a majority decision, saying there was insufficient evidence linking him to crimes. One of the three judges dissented, saying the acquittals ignored international law and the tribunal's own jurisprudence.

Among the trial chamber's most controversial findings was that operations in which non-Serbs were bussed out of territory were a “humanitarian mission” and not illegal deportations.

Marcussen called the finding, “an insult to the victims and witnesses who testified” at trial.

Presiding Judge Theodor Meron said the appeals panel would issue a ruling, “in due course.”