UN court to deliver verdict on absent of radical Serb leader Seselj

UN court to deliver verdict in trial of Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, who is accused of war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

The photo taken on March 24, 2016 shows Serbian ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj attending an anti-government rally in Belgrade on March 24, 2016.

Firebrand radical Serb leader Vojislav Seselj learns Thursday whether UN war crimes judges have found him guilty of atrocities in the 1990s Balkans wars, but -in an unprecedented move- will not attend the hearing.

Instead, the man known for his incendiary rhetoric during the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart remains defiantly in Belgrade and is reportedly planning a press conference after the verdict.

61-year-old Seselj faces nine charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity over his alleged ruthless quest to unite "all Serbian lands" in a "Greater Serbia."

Prosecutors say he was behind the murder of many Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians, as well as the forced deportation of "tens of thousands" from large areas of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and Serbia.

The judgement comes exactly a week after former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in jail for genocide and nine other charges by the judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Supporters of Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj light flares during an anti-government rally in Belgrade on March 24, 2016 (AFP).

At liberty on the streets of Belgrade, where the Serbian Radical Party leader is preparing to run in elections next month, Seselj denounced the judgement against his former colleague.

"The verdict on Radovan Karadzic is a verdict on all Serb people, all of Serb history and the Serbian nation," he told a packed crowd of ultranationalists.

"He was sentenced while innocent... just because in a crucial historical moment he led Serbs in Bosnia."

'Manipulating' the court

The ICTY has excused Seselj from attending Thursday's judgement on medical grounds, after being allowed to return to Serbia in 2014 for treatment for colon cancer.

It will be the first time that judges at the ICTY return an initial verdict without the accused in court - although defendants have been absent for appeals judgements.

While Seselj maintains he is in poor health, he was seen earlier this month at a rally in Belgrade setting fire to EU and NATO flags.

A day later, he was seen paying his respects at the grave of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic - who died in his cell in The Hague in 2006 while on trial for genocide and other war crimes.

Seselj voluntarily surrendered to the ICTY in 2003, but in the past two years he has refused to return to The Hague from Belgrade, and if he is found guilty and sentenced to jail on Thursday, many are questioning how he would be caught.

Court officials said the judges would address the issue in their ruling if needed.

"The Hague tribunal is to blame for setting him free before the verdict," Manda Patko, who heads the "Mothers of Vukovar" association said.

People lay flowers at Vukovar's memorial cemetery (AP Archive).

Seselj was a "major manipulator" who was playing the international community for his own benefit, she added.

Seselj's trial started in 2006, but was halted only weeks later after he went on hunger strike. It was then nullified.

A new trial started in late 2007 and proceeded with multiple delays until the closing arguments in March 2012, when prosecutors said Seselj had warned "rivers of blood" would flow in Bosnia if his vision for a greater Serbian state was opposed.

Seselj, who represented himself, accused the Croats of starting the war during the breakup of Yugoslavia, forcing the Serbs to defend themselves.

He has also been handed three other convictions -including a two-year sentence- for contempt of court before the ICTY.