Seselj acquitted: Balkans outraged, Belgrade conflicted

Serbian nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj waves to his supporters from the balcony of his Serbian Radical Party's headquarters. Belgrade, November 2014. [Reuters]

The acquittal of Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj by the Hague Tribunal triggered an outcry in the former Yugoslavia, while the reaction in Serbia was conflicted. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

Voislav Šešelj was an important figure during 1990s, as a periodic partner of the then-leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević. The firebrand politician was accused of stoking murderous ethnic hatred with his hate-filled rhetoric during the Yugoslav civil wars which followed the break-up of federal Yugoslavia into seven successor states and killed 130,000 people.

When the news of the acquittal by the Hague-based Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) came on 31 March, Šešelj’s supporters in Belgrade cheered the stunning outcome. Šešelj himself had expected a 25-year sentence.

The consequences of the verdict will likely be new tensions in the region, and a boost for Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party.  Both the current President and Prime Minister of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić, were members of the Radical Party before changing colors in 2008, and forming the Serbian Progressive Party, the actual ruling party in the country.

Vučić waited a day before giving his reaction to the verdict, as he did following the announcement of the verdict of Radovan Karadžić. UN judges recently ruled that the former Bosnian Serb leader was guilty of crimes against humanity, sentencing him to 40 years in prison.

Vučić also seized the occasion to criticise role of the ICTY in general.

Without commenting on the substance, Serbian Prime Minister said that he was “proud” that the government had protected the dignity and laws of Serbia, and “citizen” Šešelj.

“Think about the shame we would be exposed had we extradited Šešelj to the Hague Tribunal, only to have him returned 25 days later. I’m proud that the government of Serbia protected the laws and the dignity of Serbia and its citizens, as well as dignity of the citizen, Šešelj,” he said.

While stating he felt no “animosity” towards Šešelj and wishing his family “all the best”, Vučić distanced himself from his party, saying that as long as he is leading the government, he would vehemently oppose Šešelj’s politics.

Hague tribunal: Karadzic guilty of crimes against humanity

UN judges said today (24 March) that former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić was ciminally responsible for the siege of Sarajevo and crimes against humanity in other towns and villages during the Bosnian war of the 1990s

He was acquitted by …

Vučić also called on the citizens of Serbia do respect Muslim and Croatian victims and show the “greatness of Serbs”.

In their reaction to the sentencing of Karadžić, Serbian officials stressed that it should not influence the fate of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian entity dominated by ethnic Serbs.

Vučić, who recently applauded officials in the EU for their efforts in improving relations in the Balkans, also stressed that the  ICTY didn’t play its expected role in fostering reconciliation,  but instead stoked tensions. He also said that the ICTY was politically motivated.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić reacted immediately after the verdict, saying that it had left him feeling indifferent.

“I feel indifferent about the verdict [in the trial of] Vojislav Šešelj. I have no feelings toward him,” Nikolić told reporters in Belgrade.

Outcry in the region

The outrage and disappointment following Šešelj’s acquittal amongst the ex-Yugoslav states was expected.

Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković slammed Šešelj’s acquittal.

“The verdict is shameful. This is a defeat of the ICTY prosecution. I am in Vukovar today where he did evil and showed no remorse,” Orešković told reporters in Vukovar.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović said that the acquittal of Vojislav Šešelj was a defeat of international criminal law and added that Croatia could not accept such a “shameful” verdict. Šešelj was banned from entering Croatia, which he had hoped to visit.

Several Croatian NGOs organized a protest rally in downtown Zagreb on 31 March, aimed at showing their disagreement with the acquittal of Šešelj and solidarity with the victims of war.

Bosnia and Herzegovina Council of Ministers Chairman Denis Zvizdić said that he was surprised by the ICTY’s decision to let Vojislav Šešelj leave as a free man.

Hague court heightens tensions between Serbia and Croatia

The decisions of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), first to set free an indicted war criminal, and then to request his return to The Hague, have heightened tensions between Serbia and Croatia. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

Even in Serbia, NGOs deplored the ICTY ruling. As Aleksandar Popov, director of the Centre for Regionalism in Novi Sad said, the court decision left “a bitter taste in the mouth of unaccomplished justice”.

“This is unaccomplished justice for all the victims of persecution on ethnic grounds and of ethnic cleansing performed by the paramilitary formations of which Šešelj was in command, and which have left lasting consequences in Vojvodina, particularly in Hrtkovci – the village that was left completely empty through the action of Šešelj’s followers,” Popov stated.

Nataša Kandić, the founder of the Humanitarian Law Center, said that the verdict was not coherent, and that it could be “hardly sustained”. She linked the decision with the benevolent approach of the judge, Jean-Claude Antonetti, towards Šešelj.

Munira Subašić, president of the Movement of Mothers of Srebrenica and Žepa Enclaves association, representing families of the victims, said that the acquittal had left her bitter. She said that a “large lobby of Serbs, Serbia and Russia” was responsible for the decision.

Some organizations in Serbia, including the feminist, anti-militarist Women in Black, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights condemned the verdict, as well as some other analysts, such as leftist sociologist Jovo Bakić who called the verdict as shameful for the international justice.

On the other hand, parties of the extreme right in Serbia, including Šešelj’s SRS said that the verdict doesn’t change the “anti Serbian” character of the ICTY.

What next?

The prosecution in The Hague now has 30 days to submit an appeal.

In the meantime, the verdict could influence Serbian politics, by giving a boost to Šešelj’s party and other right-wing groups in the upcoming elections. Even if it does not threaten the dominance of the ruling party, it is regarded by some as an issue of concern.

According to the latest poll by Faktor, published days before the verdict, Šešelj’s SRS has 6% of the vote, while other extreme right faction, the Democratic Party of Serbia – Dveri, is credited with  5.5% of the vote. The ruling SNS would have slightly over 50%.

Šešelj himself mentions the possibility of seeking indemnities worth €12 million, for the years he spent in prison.

Lawyer Novak Lukić, who was a member of the Serbian legal team in the ICTY during the dispute between Croatia and Serbia, who accused each other of genocide, said that he could claim the money, but that there was no chance to get indemnities due to the strict UN rules.

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