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Opinion: The overburdened Hague Tribunal

Vojislav Seselj was and is a hate preacher, yet he is now a free man again. The trial before the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague was a fiasco for law and justice, writes Dragoslav Dedovic.

There was already speculation on the eve of the verdict: If Vojislav Seselj were given the maximum 19 years imprisonment, he would be a free man. That's because almost all those convicted had been released after they had served two-thirds of the sentence. And time served before and during the trial is always deducted. But now he's been given a real acquittal.

Vojislav Seselj was and still is a hate preacher. His public image and political action occupies the space between ethnic slurs and hate speech. Morally and politically, as one of the loudmouth ideologues of Greater Serbia, he was undoubtedly a pioneer of ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav wars that began in 1991.

So how did he walk free?

In 2003, Seselj turned himself in voluntarily to the UN tribunal. The judges took all of 13 years to reach their verdict. Looking at those 13 years, they can safely be called a fiasco for law and justice.

Seselj was not accused of incitement. There is still no such charge in international law. He was instead charged with something the inconsistent and weak prosecution could not now prove: direct responsibility for war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1991 and 1993.

Dragoslav Dedovic Kommentarbild App

DW's Dragoslav Dedovic

Around 18 months ago the overburdened lawyers from The Hague had him deported to Serbia - secretly hoping never to see him again. Seselj is severely ill with cancer. But expectations of his demise were premature. The Hague Tribunal did not even demand a commitment from the government in Belgrade to return the defendant to the Netherlands if he were found guilty.

Currently, a very lively Seselj is taking part in the Serbian election campaign. The Hague is part of his campaign strategy. Posters in Serbia show his portrait above a single word: Winner! The message is clear: Seselj has brought the predominately Western, anti-Serbian judiciary to its knees.

It's a message that has a receptive audience. He was absent from the reading of the verdict and has only scorn left for the judges. The judgment will boost him and his party before the general elections on April 24.


A surprising number celebrated the outcome of this mammoth trial, none more so than his party followers in Serbia. Seselj could help the Serbian Radical Party, which had sunk into insignificance, to once again become the third-strongest political force in Serbia. His international friends and spiritual kin - such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Jean-Marie Le Pen - are certainly excited.

Paradoxically, Croatian and other non-Serb nationalists are also happy: Because of his acquittal for preaching hatred, Vojislav Seselj is the final proof that the 1990s war between Croats and Serbs can remain alive for a long time. This is just as politically viable in Serbia's neighbors.

The Serbian prime minister and president - both once-time ardent Seselj supporters - are likely to be pleased, if only in secret: Their erstwhile role model with his militaristic slogans allows them, now that they have converted to the European cause, to appear to have virtually no alternative to their "civilized nationalism" on the right of Serbia's political spectrum.

And most likely, everyone at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague is breathing a sigh of relief. The nightmare is finally over.

…and losers...

The losers are, of course, those who have experienced the disastrous implementation of Seselj's hate speech at first hand. The victims of his party's "White Eagle" militia in Bosnia and Croatia are unlikely to have a great deal of understanding for the subtleties of international law and for the scale of the gaping holes in it.

The world has long had quite different concerns. The aggressive political clown Seselj must not, and should not, take the stage in The Hague again. Serbia must keep him as its own hot potato. The verdict against him is just part of the bankruptcy of an overburdened court.

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