The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal has acquitted Serbian ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj of instigating atrocities by Serbian paramilitaries in the 1990s Balkan wars.
Prosecutors had charged Seselj, 61, with crimes including persecution, murder and torture and had demanded a 28-year sentence. But in a majority decision, the three-judge panel said there was insufficient evidence linking the politician to the crimes.
The ruling on Thursday sparked joy in Serbia and outrage in Bosnia and Croatia.
“Following this verdict, Vojislav Seselj is now a free man,” Presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti said at a hearing in The Hague, which Seselj did not attend.
At a Belgrade news conference after his acquittal, Seselj, who defended himself at his trial and did not call a single defence witness, 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.
Chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz questioned a number of key findings by two of the three trial judges. He almost certainly will appeal, but said he has to study the 100-page ruling and its dissenting opinions.
In a 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 often was 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 establish, saying that although he, “may have had a certain amount of moral authority over his party’s volunteers, they were not his subordinates” when in combat.
Prosecutor Brammertz pointed to the ruling’s controversial findings, which suggested Bosnian Muslims were not subject to ethnic cleansing as part of a Serb mission to found a Greater Serbia, and that bussing non-Serbs from their homelands amounted to a humanitarian mission.
“The reading of the conflict by the trial chamber is very, very different to what we are used to,” he said, adding that the marathon case was beset by allegations of interference with witnesses and evidence.
The acquittal stunned many Bosnians.
“An absolutely shocking decision,” said lawyer Senad Pecanin. “This is the lowest point of The Hague tribunal.”