The Hague (AFP) – Firebrand Serb leader Vojislav Seselj will learn Wednesday whether UN war crimes judges uphold an appeal against his acquittal for war crimes in the 1990s Balkans conflict.
The 63-year-old radical opposition MP has said he will snub the hearing when presiding judge Theodor Meron reads the ruling in the tribunal in The Hague.
Seselj was 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 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.
Incensed prosecutors appealed the acquittal, with the court’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz calling the decision a “fundamental failure by the majority (of judges) to perform its judicial function”.
Wednesday’s appeal starts at 1200 GMT before the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), which is wrapping up the last cases after the ICTY closed in December.
– ‘Rivers of blood’ –
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 asked for a 28-year-sentence for the man they referred to as the “chief propagandist of the Greater Serbia”, who they said warned that “rivers of blood” would flow in Bosnia if his vision for a Greater Serbia was opposed.
The appeals judges now have three options: either to uphold the trial verdict, which means that Seselj remains free or; to overturn the verdict and impose a sentence; or to quash the verdict and order a re-trial.
If the verdict is overturned, judges may also issue an arrest warrant for Seselj — who has remained in Belgrade after he was excused from attending the 2016 judgement having returned to Serbia two years earlier on medical grounds — or order him to be surrendered back to the court.
Seselj denies 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” at the 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 he did not regret his role in the conflict.
“We will never give up the idea of a Greater Serbia,” Seselj said, adding his extreme right-wing Serbian Radical Party exists “to unite within the same state all the territories where the Serb people live”.
– ‘Fundamental errors’ –
In 2016, the judges in a split ruling said prosecutors had failed to prove “that there was a widespread and systematic attack against the non-Serb civilian population”.
Although crimes were committed, Seselj was found not to be the “hierarchical superior” of his paramilitary forces after they came under the control of the Serbian army.
But prosecutors say the judges failed to give “sufficient reasons” for their conclusions.
The ruling was also heavily criticised by law experts, historians and in an unusually strong minority opinion by fellow judge Flavia Lattanzi.
“In the light of the fundamental errors,” prosecutors urged appeals judges to quash the ruling and find Seselj “guilty as charged”, sentence him, or to order a retrial.
Seselj remains defiant though. Asked whether he thought Serbia would hand him back to the court if his acquittal is overturned, he said: “You have to ask the authorities. Until now they did not want it. Neither for me, nor my collaborators.”