UN court acquits Serb ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj of war crime charges
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal has acquitted Serbian ultranationalist politician Vojislav Seselj of all nine counts alleging that he was responsible for or incited atrocities by Serbian paramilitaries during the Balkan wars.
Seselj was not present at the court in The Hague for the hearing as Presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti declared: "Following this verdict, Vojislav Seselj is now a free man."
In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, Seselj's supporters at his Serbian Radical Party headquarters yelled, clapped and screamed with joy as the verdict was read out.
UN prosecutors, who had charged the 61-year-old with crimes including persecution, murder and torture during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s, had demanded a 28-year sentence.
But in a majority decision, the three-judge panel said there was insufficient evidence linking Seselj to crimes. Prosecutors have the right to appeal.
With a surge in pro-Russian and right-wing sentiments ahead of the April 24 general election in Serbia, Seselj's Serbian Radical Party has a good chance to return to parliament after missing out following the last vote two years ago.
His return to Belgrade in late 2014, when the tribunal released him on humanitarian grounds due to his ill health, only boosted his popularity among the ultranationalists.
He has campaigned on the platform that Serbia must never enter the European Union or Nato and should forge closer ties with Moscow.
He has burned EU flags during pre-election rallies, and said he would only join a coalition government with the incumbent populists, his former allies, if they give up their goal of EU accession.
At a press conference shortly after his acquittal, Seselj, who defended himself throughout his trial, said the decision was "the only possible one from the legal aspect".
"After so many proceedings in which innocent Serbs were given draconian punishments, this time two honest judges showed they valued honour more than political pressure," he said.
In their majority ruling, the three-judge panel ruled that Serbian plans to carve out a "Greater Serbia" by uniting lands they considered Serb territory in Croatia and Bosnia was a "political goal" and not a criminal plan, as prosecutors alleged.
The plan was often accompanied by military campaigns that drove out thousands of non-Serb civilians and left thousands of others dead.
Judge Antonetti distanced Seselj from the crimes of the paramilitaries he helped to establish, saying that although Seselj "may have had a certain amount of moral authority over his party's volunteers, they were not his subordinates" when they went into combat.
The acquittal stunned many Bosnians.
"An absolutely shocking decision," said lawyer and publicist Senad Pecanin. "This is the lowest point of The Hague tribunal."
Ismar Jamakovic, 23, a student of political science from Sarajevo, said judges ruled that "advocating the creation of Greater Serbia was a political and not a criminal act".
He added: "Does this mean I can now advocate the creation of an Islamic State without facing any consequences? You've got to be kidding me."