THE HAGUE, Netherlands – In a rare courtroom victory for a Serb defendant, a U.N. war crimes tribunal on Thursday acquitted ultranationalist politician Vojislav Seselj of atrocities and pronounced him a free man. The decision inflamed simmering tensions in the Balkans, sparking joy in Serbia and horror and deep anger in Bosnia and Croatia.
Prosecutors had charged Seselj, 61, with crimes including persecution, murder and torture and had demanded a 28-year sentence for his support of Serb paramilitaries during the region's bitter, bloody wars in the early 1990s.
But in a majority decision, the three-judge panel said there was insufficient evidence linking the politician himself to the crimes. A dissenting opinion shredded that logic, providing grist for possible future appeals.
"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," Seselj declared at a press conference at his Serbian Radical Party headquarters in Belgrade.
Others heatedly disagreed.
"This is a defeat of The Hague tribunal," Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic said in Vukovar, an eastern Croatian town destroyed by Serbian troops, including Seselj's paramilitaries, during the war for independence in the 1990s. "I am in Vukovar today, and we all know that this man has done evil to this town. He showed no remorse whatsoever."
Most of the people indicted and convicted by the court have been Serbs as the international community blamed them for most of the war's worst atrocities, including the deadly siege of Sarajevo and 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica.
Seselj, who repeatedly branded the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia an anti-Serb court, was not in The Hague for the ruling. He was allowed to return home in late 2014 on compassionate grounds due to ill health.
Once home, the firebrand ultranationalist, who once said he would like to gouge out the eyes of rival Croats with a rusty spoon, rekindled a political career that was put on hold when he surrendered to the tribunal in 2003.
Now he could become a key political powerbroker after Serbia's April 24 general election. With a surge in pro-Russian and right-wing sentiments ahead of the vote, Seselj's Serbian Radical Party has a good chance to return to parliament after missing out two years ago.
Seselj 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, NATO and Croatian 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.
The ruling could also further deteriorate relations between the two main Balkan rivals, Serbia and Croatia.
Oreskovic, the prime minister described the acquittal as "shameful" and demanded a Serbian government "reaction" as a proof that Belgrade adheres to EU values as it seeks membership in the bloc.
In Bosnia, which also saw mass killings by Serb forces, the acquittal sparked disbelief and anger.
"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."
Jamakovic was referring to one of the most controversial aspects of Thursday's ruling. Prosecutors have long cast wartime plans by Serb leaders including Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic as a criminal plot to create a "Greater Serbia" by forcefully expelling non-Serbs from their homes and thus redrawing the Balkan borders. Reading out a summary of the judgment, Presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti characterized the plan as a political goal, not a criminal act.
The ruling called operations in which non-Serbs were bussed out of territory as a "humanitarian mission." Prosecutors had branded it a forcible displacement of the civilian population.
"The reading of the conflict by the trial chamber is very, very different to what we are used to," Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz told reporters, adding that Seselj's trial was beset by allegations of interference with witnesses and evidence.
Brammertz almost certainly will appeal, but said Thursday he first has to study the ruling, which runs to some 100 pages, and its dissenting opinion.
Antonetti also distanced Seselj from the crimes of the Serb 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.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Flavia Lattanzi sounded appalled at the findings of the other two judges, saying they had set aside "all the rules of international humanitarian law that existed before the creation of the Tribunal and all the applicable law established since the inception of the Tribunal in order to acquit Vojislav Seselj."
Serbian political analyst Djordje Subotic said the ruling legitimizes the "Greater Serbia" project, which could have grave consequences for future stability in the Balkans.
"This means that the idea of redrawing the borders in the Balkans is revived," he said.
Seselj said he now expects to win 20-25 percent of the vote for his far-right radicals in April.
"The most important is that we get more than the progressives," he said, referring to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, his former allies-turned-foes.