UN judges hear bid to quash radical Serb's acquittal

Jan HENNOP
The acquittal of Serbian ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj (C), pictured in 2015, is being challenged by UN prosecutors

UN prosecutors will Wednesday seek to overturn the surprise acquittal of Serbia's Vojislav Seselj, with the firebrand politician set to snub the court, dubbed this week "a theatre of the absurd."

The appeal hearing in the Seselj case comes after several blows for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and its hopes for justice for the victims.

Those setbacks included the dramatic live suicide of former Bosnian Croat military commander Slobodan Praljak. In late November he swallowed cyanide in the courtroom in scenes beamed around the world just after judges upheld his 20-year jail term for war crimes -- their last sentence before the ICTY closes this month.

The building, which houses the tribunal's successor, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), is now part of a crime scene for Dutch investigators.

Just a week earlier, Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic had to be dragged from the court during an angry outburst as he was jailed for life for genocide, among other charges. The man, dubbed the "Butcher of Bosnia", has announced his intention to appeal.

Set up in 1993, the ICTY has successfully prosecuted dozens of those responsible for the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.

But hopes of bringing reconciliation to the bitterly divided region are far from having materialised.

In a fresh sign of the bitter tensions, about 2,000 people packed a public memorial in Zagreb on Monday to honour Praljak hailing him as a hero.

"No one can compare to a great man like Slobodan," said Miroslav Tudjman, an MP of Croatia's conservative HDZ party and son of late Croatian nationalist Franjo Tudjman.

He slammed the UN judges as "incompetent and irresponsible" and said the court is "a parody, a theatre of the absurd".

- Contempt -

Seselj has done nothing to hide his own contempt for the tribunal.

"I have nothing to do with the court in The Hague," he told AFP in Belgrade, adding he had spent 12 years in the city "waiting for the court to prove the charges against me".

"Since I was acquitted in the first instance, I do not see what is left for this mechanism, what it can do with my verdict," added Seselj, now a member of the Serbian parliament with his Serbian Radical Party.

He plans to be absent Wednesday when from 1200 GMT judges at the MICT hear oral arguments by prosecutors, who insist Seselj was behind the murders of many Croats, Muslims and other non-Serb civilians in an unrelenting quest to create a "Greater Serbia".

Prosecutors are appealing after the first judges last year found Seselj, 63, not guilty on nine counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In their majority ruling, the judges said the prosecution had failed to prove "there was a widespread systematic attack against the non-Serb civilian population in large areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina."

Prosecutors also failed to prove any "causal link" between Seselj's fiery speeches and the wave of atrocities, they ruled.

When he told his troops during the deadly three-month siege of the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991 "to spare no one", he was merely "participating in the war effort by galvanising Serb forces," the judges concluded.

- No reasoning -

Seselj hailed his acquittal as "honourable and fair", but the verdict left prosecutors baffled.

Experts said the judgement overturned international law and rewrote the history of the Balkans conflicts, triggered as Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991 following the fall of communism.

In an unusually strong dissenting opinion, Italian judge Flavia Lattanzi said her two fellow judges used "insufficient reasoning, or no reasoning at all" in their findings.

Prosecutors have appealed the acquittal on two grounds: namely that the trial judges "failed to give a reasoned judgement" and that they "erred in fact by acquitting the accused." A ruling is due in early 2018.

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