March 30, 2016 / 10:08 PM / 2 years ago

Serbian firebrand Seselj faces verdict in U.N. war crimes trial

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - U.N. judges rule on Thursday in the war crimes trial of Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian nationalist politician accused of stoking murderous ethnic hatred during the 1990s wars prompted by the break-up of federal Yugoslavia.

Serbian ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj surrounded by his supporters arrives for an anti-government rally in Belgrade March 24, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

The verdict may prove as difficult for the U.N. Criminal Triibunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to manage as the decade-long trial, which suffered multiple delays as Seselj represented himself and challenged the court at every turn.

Seselj, 61, was granted provisional release in 2014 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, he is still alive and has re-immersed himself in Serbian politics, addressing rallies in defiance of ICTY orders.

He refused to return for Thursday’s court session, due to begin at 0800 GMT, and did not intend to even watch it by satellite. Judges averted a showdown over his attendance by excusing him from attending for health reasons at the last minute.

A close ally of late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Seselj faces three counts of crimes against humanity and six of war crimes for inciting ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia and the Serbian province of Vojvodina.

Prosecutors say in addition to his rhetoric about creating an ethnically pure “Greater Serbia”, he helped set up paramilitary units to carry out the plan. Serb paramilitaries drove tens of thousands of Muslims and Croats from their homes.

A prolific author, Seselj is known for passionate speeches, a short temper and crude threats such as telling Serb enemies that he would “gouge out their eyes with rusty spoons”.

He says he is innocent of wrongdoing. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment, which would require his transfer to the ICTY. That would pose a dilemma for Serbia’s government.

Handing him over would anger the government’s base of supporters who see the Western-backed court as biased against Serbia, but non-cooperation would endanger the funding Serbia receives from the EU. Serbia is also a candidate to join the EU.

The pro-EU government, facing elections in April, is walking a tightrope at a time of growing Russian influence in southeastern Europe - Moscow is a traditional ally of Belgrade - and risks losing domestic support if it is seen to be too accommodating of the ICTY.

In an interview with Newsweek’s Serbian edition, Seselj said he expected to be sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“If the government extradites me, then I will serve my time. I am not going back to The Hague voluntarily,” he said.

Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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