The Hague (AFP) – UN judges Wednesday found radical Serb Vojislav Seselj guilty on appeal of crimes against humanity, but the firebrand politician will remain a free man because of time already served behind bars.
“The appeals chamber reverses Seselj’s acquittals for instigating persecution, deportation and other inhumane acts as crimes against humanity,” presiding judge Theodor Meron said at a hearing in The Hague, sentencing the firebrand politician to 10 years behind bars.
The judges however said that in line with the court’s rules, “Seselj’s sentence has been served” after he spent about 12 years in jail on trial at the former Yugoslav war crimes court.
Seselj snubbed the hearing and was not present when the verdict was read by judges at the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT).
He had been acquitted in March 2016 of nine war crimes and crimes against humanity charges after a trial lasting more than eight years at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
A three-judge panel led by French judge Jean-Claude Antonetti said in 2016 that prosecutors had “failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt” or provide sufficient evidence that Seselj was responsible for the crimes he had been charged with.
The verdict had been heavily criticised by law experts and historians who said it had rewritten the history of the Balkans conflicts.
-‘Ignored the evidence’ –
The five appeals judges agreed Wednesday, sharply overturning the original trial’s findings.
Either the initial court had “ignored a substantial portion of highly relevant evidence and its own findings, or it erred in fact,” Meron said.
“The appeals chamber finds that no reasonable trier of fact could have concluded that there was no widespread or systematic attack against the non-Serbian population in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
Wednesday’s appeal was before the MICT, which is wrapping up the last cases after the ICTY closed in December.
During his marathon trial, prosecutors alleged Seselj was behind the murders of scores of Croat, Muslim and other non-Serbs between 1991 and 1993 in the conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart, after the fall of communism.
The prosecution had sought a 28-year-sentence for the man they referred to as the “chief propagandist of the Greater Serbia”. They said he had warned that “rivers of blood” would flow in Bosnia if his vision for a Greater Serbia was opposed.
Seselj denied the allegations and in particular making two speeches highlighted by prosecutors in the indictment.
In one address, prosecutors say he encouraged Serbs “not to spare a person” in the 1991 siege of the Croat city of Vukovar. In another a year later, he allegedly described Muslims as “excrement” in the Serbian town of Mali Zvornik.
“Lies,” Seselj told AFP earlier this month, adding that he did not regret his role in the conflict.
“We will never give up the idea of a Greater Serbia,” Seselj said, adding that his extreme right-wing Serbian Radical Party exists “to unite within the same state all the territories where the Serb people live”.