THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — In a sweeping defeat for U.N. prosecutors, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal acquitted Serbian ultranationalist politician Vojislav Seselj on Thursday of all nine counts alleging that he was responsible for or incited atrocities by Serbian paramilitaries in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s.
Seselj was not present at the court in The Hague for the hearing as Presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti declared: “Following this verdict, Vojislav Seselj is now a free man.”
In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, Seselj’s supporters at his Serbian Radical Party headquarters yelled, clapped and screamed with joy as the verdict was read out.
Prosecutors who had charged Seselj, 61, with crimes including persecution, murder and torture had demanded a 28-year sentence.
But in a majority decision, the three-judge panel said there was insufficient evidence linking Seselj to crimes. Prosecutors have the right to appeal.
With a surge in pro-Russian and right-wing sentiments ahead of the April 24 general election in Serbia, Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party has a good chance to return to parliament after missing out after the last vote two years ago.
His return to Belgrade in late 2014, when the tribunal released him on humanitarian grounds due to his ill health, only boosted his popularity among the ultranationalists. He has campaigned on the platform that Serbia must never enter the 28-nation European Union or NATO and should forge closer ties with Moscow.
He has burned EU flags during pre-election rallies, and said he would join a coalition government with the incumbent populists, his former allies, only if they give up their goal of EU accession.
Associated Press writer Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.