Serb Nationalist Leader Vojislav Seselj Is Acquitted of Balkan War Crimes

Seselj was accused of setting up paramilitary units responsible for ethnic cleansing that killed thousands of people and drove tens of thousands of Muslims and Croats from their homes.
March 31, 2016, 10:25am
Vojislav Seselj saluda a sus seguidores desde el balcón de la sede de su partido en Belgrado, Serbia, el 12 de noviembre de 2014. (Imagen por Andrej Cukic/EPA)

United Nations judges on Thursday acquitted Serbian firebrand politician Vojislav Seselj of all the counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he faced, delivering a boost to his Serbian Radical Party ahead of an election in April.

Prosecutors had accused Seselj of stoking murderous ethnic tension with his fiery rhetoric at the outset of the 1990s wars that followed the collapse of federal Yugoslavia into seven successor states, a process that cost 130,000 lives.

But judges at the UN war crimes court at The Hague (ICTY) said Seselj bore no individual responsibility for the crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing that took place.

"With this acquittal on all the nine counts of the indictment the arrest warrant issued by the appeals chamber is rendered moot," said presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti. "Vojislav Seselj is now a free man."

Shortly after the verdict, Seselj said the UN had come to the only possible conclusion it could.

Seselj, 61, was granted provisional release in 2014 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, he is still alive and reimmersed himself in Serbian politics, addressing rallies in defiance of orders from the UN Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

He refused to return for Thursday's court session and said he did not intend to even watch it by satellite. Judges averted a showdown over his attendance by excusing him from attending for health reasons at the last minute.

A close ally of late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Seselj faced three counts of crimes against humanity and six of war crimes for inciting ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia, and the Serbian province of Vojvodina.

Prosecutors claimed that in addition to his rhetoric about creating an ethnically pure "Greater Serbia," he helped set up paramilitary units to carry out the plan. Serb paramilitaries drove tens of thousands of Muslims and Croats from their homes.

He was accused of overseeing the torture, beating, robbery, sexual assaults and perpetuation of inhumane living conditions against Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians by Serb soldiers during capture and in the detention facilities, and the deliberate destruction of homes, other public and private property, cultural institutions, historic monuments, and sacred sites

A prolific author, Seselj is known for passionate speeches, a short temper and crude threats such as telling Serb enemies that he would "gouge out their eyes with rusty spoons."

Last week, the ICTY found Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of genocide and war crimes in the war in Bosnia. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.