Vojislav Seselj, Serbian Nationalist, Is Acquitted of War Crimes by Hague Tribunal
A United Nations tribunal on Thursday acquitted Serbian nationalist, Vojislav Seselj, of war crimes and of crimes against humanity for his role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, igniting a celebration by his followers and outrage among relatives of the victims.
To those representing the victims, the acquittal was as gut-wrenching as it was surprising. “This verdict is offensive and shocking, and the process of reconciliation among people and neighboring countries will be devastated,” said the Croatian foreign minister, Miro Kovac, in a statement. “All those in the world who incite war, calling for ethnic cleansing and a policy of forced changes to internationally recognized borders were given a moral blank check with this verdict.”
Mr. Seselj – 61, a lawyer famous for his fiery and irreverent speeches, during the war mobilized a well-known group of volunteer fighters known as Seselj’s Men – was charged with three counts of crimes against humanity and six of war crimes in the ethnic cleansing for his role in mobilizing and motivating his followers. The charges included participating in a “joint criminal enterprise” to create a so-called Greater Serbia that led to the forcible transfer of tens of thousands of civilians; torture, sexual assaults, beatings and other physical abuse of detained non-Serbs; the destruction of homes, religious sites and cultural institutions; and hate speech.
But the majority on the three-judge bench found that Mr. Seselj, who acted as his own lawyer, was primarily pursuing a political project and was not an accomplice to any of those crimes. Even though he provided money and weapons to his volunteer fighters, the judges said he had not ordered, aided or abetted crimes because the fighters were under the command of Serbian military and police forces.
Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic of Croatia denounced the acquittal as “a shameful slap to the victims.” He said Mr. Seselj “did not show remorse for the wrongs committed against the victims in Vukovar,” referring to a city in eastern Croatia, along the border with Serbia, that was decimated during the 1990s war.
Mr. Seselj, a former deputy prime minister of Serbia and onetime ally of the former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, surrendered to the tribunal in The Hague in 2003. The long delays in Mr. Seselj’s case, to a large extent the result of his machinations, caused profound embarrassment for the tribunal. During his 11 years in detention, he was tried and convicted three times for contempt of court, for writing about protected prosecution witnesses. An arrest warrant is still pending for three of his associates, who are accused of intimidating and bribing witnesses who later retracted or changed their statements.
He was not present in the courtroom on Thursday. In Serbia, Mr. Seselj and his followers celebrated the acquittal and expected it would be a boost for his Serbian Radical Party in next month’s elections. But analysts do not expect the party to fare well, as the appeal of nationalism has faded and many people want to join the European Union.
On Thursday, Mr. Seselj said he would charge the tribunal $16 million in lawyer’s fees and damages. The tribunal has said there is no provision for reimbursement.
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