UN judges hear appeal against radical Serb's war crimes acquittal

The Hague (AFP) –


UN prosecutors Wednesday sought to overturn the surprise acquittal of Serbia's Vojislav Seselj on war crimes charges, with the firebrand politician set to snub the court, dubbed "a theatre of the absurd" by a prominent critic this week.

The appeal hearing comes after several blows for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and its work for justice for the victims of the Balkans wars of the 1990s.

Those setbacks included the dramatic suicide of former Bosnian Croat military commander Slobodan Praljak.

He swallowed cyanide in the courtroom in late November 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 remain distant.

About 2,000 people packed a public memorial in Zagreb on Monday to honour Praljak 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, now a member of the Serbian parliament with his Serbian Radical Party, has done little 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 "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 planned to be absent Wednesday when judges at the MICT were to hear prosecutors' arguments from 1200 GMT.

Prosecutors 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-Herzegovina."

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

When he told 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.

- Rule of law -

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 Balkan conflicts, triggered as Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991 following the fall of communism.

The court's chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz insisted that "in large measure, the ICTY has achieved what it set out to do" by investigating crimes and prosecuting top officials.

He agreed at a Washington think-tank talk on Tuesday that reconciliation remained elusive, but said the tribunal's legacy would not be measured by its own work but by "whether the countries of the former Yugoslavia build the rule of law".

Balkan countries must "demonstrate that they can secure meaningful justice for the victims and show the courage to accept facts and pursue meaningful reconciliation".

A ruling in the Seselj appeal is due in early 2018.