THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS >> In a sweeping defeat for U.N. prosecutors, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal acquitted Serbian ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj on Thursday of all nine counts alleging that he was responsible for or incited atrocities by Serbian paramilitaries in the 1990s wars in Bosnia and Croatia.
Prosecutors had charged Seselj, 61, with crimes including persecution, murder and torture and had demanded a 28-year sentence. But in a majority decision, the three-judge panel said there was insufficient evidence linking himSeselj to the crimes.
"Following this verdict, Vojislav Seselj is now a free man," Presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti at the hearing in The Hague, which Seselj did not attend.
In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, Seselj supporters yelled, clapped and screamed with joy at his Serbian Radical Party headquarters as the verdict was read out.
At a press conference shortly after his acquittal, Seselj, who defended himself throughout his trial, said the decision was "the only possible one from the legal aspect."
"After so many proceedings in which innocent Serbs were given draconian punishments, this time two honest judges showed they valued honor more than political pressure," he said.
In a written statement, prosecutors said they would decide whether to appeal after reviewing the judges' "reasoning that led to this outcome, including the dissenting opinion and the Trial Chamber's findings that depart from the consistent jurisprudence of the Tribunal."
In their majority ruling, the three-judge panel ruled that Serbian plans to carve out a "Greater Serbia" by uniting lands they considered Serb territory in Croatia and Bosnia was a "political goal" and not a criminal plan, as prosecutors alleged. The plan often was accompanied by military campaigns that drove out thousands of non-Serb civilians and left thousands of others dead.
Antonetti distanced Seselj from the crimes of the paramilitaries he helped to establish, saying that although Seselj, "may have had a certain amount of moral authority over his party's volunteers, they were not his subordinates" when they went into combat.
The acquittal stunned many Bosnians.
"An absolutely shocking decision," said lawyer and publicist Senad Pecanin. "This is the lowest point of The Hague tribunal."
Ismar Jamakovic, 23, a student of political science from Sarajevo, said judges ruled that "advocating the creation of Greater Serbia was a political and not a criminal act. Does this mean I can now advocate the creation of an Islamic State without facing any consequences? You've got to be kidding me."
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.
Seselj's 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 writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade and Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo contributed to this report.