Vojislav Seselj had been charged with recruiting and arming Serb fighters blamed for atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia.
“Bring me back my son and my family. I’ll give you my entire fortune!” Kada Hotic, a mother from Srebrenica shouted out to Vojislav Seselj, leader and founder of the Serbian Radical Party.
Surrounded by journalists, Seselj stood outside the Higher Court in Belgrade two weeks ago where a hearing was about to start against eight former Bosnian Serb policemen accused of killing some 1,300 Bosnian Muslims from Kravica, a village near Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.
Seselj had arrived to support the accused and follow the hearing from the gallery.
Speaking to reporters, Seselj stated that the murder of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica was a “made-up crime”.
“Hey, I’m holding a press conference here,” Seselj replied nonchalantly.
“What can I do? Maybe your son was killed as an innocent – maybe, maybe not. I don’t know who your son was,” Seselj told Hotic.
“But there was no genocide and 7,000 to 8,000 weren’t killed, rather, 1,200 were killed … that story doesn’t pass any more,” Seselj reiterated.
Hotic lost 56 members of her family in Srebrenica including her husband, son, two brothers and brother-in-law in July 1995, when Serb forces took over the UN-declared “safe area” and systematically killed over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys within a few days.
What happened in Srebrenica has long been internationally recognised as an act of genocide, including by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice.
Yet, for Serbs both in Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska (Serbian Republic) semi-autonomous entity, genocide denial is common, both among the public and officials.
On Wednesday, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals in The Hague, Netherlands will rule on an appeal and deliver its second-instance verdict for Seselj.
Prosecutors argued that Seselj allegedly recruited paramilitary groups and incited them to commit atrocities against non-Serbs.
Seselj has long refused to return to The Hague and attend the hearing, having called it an illegitimate, “anti-Serbian” court.
A ‘fundamental failure’
In March 2016, in a 2-to-1 vote, the UN war crimes tribunal found Seselj innocent of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia during the war in the 1990s, which left more than 100,000 dead. After spending 13 years in detention, Seselj was acquitted of all charges.
The judgement ruled that the “Greater Serbia” project was a political plan as opposed to criminal and that Seselj’s deployment of paramilitary volunteers was to “protect civilians”.
The decision shocked many. Human rights groups and legal experts questioned the ruling.
The Economist described his acquittal as “a victory for advocates of ethnic cleansing”.
Prosecutors appealed for a guilty verdict or a retrial, arguing that the majority of judges made so many errors that they “invalidate the judgment as a whole”.
“There has been a fundamental failure by the Majority to perform its judicial function,” wrote prosecutor Serge Brammertz.
Dream for ‘Greater Serbia’ continues
Seselj was granted temporary release from detention in The Hague in November 2014 for cancer treatment and received a hero’s welcome by hundreds upon arrival at the Belgrade airport.
Less than a month after the verdict ruled him innocent, Seselj leads his party’s return to parliament after an absence of eight years, having won eight percent of votes in the 2016 elections.
His Serbian Radical Party still remains committed to the “Greater Serbia” ideology that fuelled the bloodshed in the early 1990s.
“The idea of a Greater Serbia is just as strong with or without me. The idea of a Greater Serbia will live on without me; it’s immortal,” Seselj told local media after news of his verdict broke.
Serbia’s resurgence in right-wing nationalism in recent years has caught the international community’s attention.
Convicted war criminals and allies of the late Slobodan Milosevic – one of the indicted architects of the “Greater Serbia” plan – have been returning to hold official positions in Serbia as well as Republika Srpska.
After serving two-thirds of his 14-year sentence for war crimes committed during the military campaign in Kosovo, news broke last October that Vladimir Lazarevic – former chief of staff of the Yugoslav Army’s Pristina Corps – will be teaching cadets at the Military Academy in Belgrade.
Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin told a local newspaper it was “a way to correct the injustice that was inflicted on them in the past years”.
“The time of shame has passed; this is the time to be quietly proud.”
Those who have been convicted and released from The Hague make frequent appearances in Serbian media. But the media fails to mention their past, leaving the public largely uninformed about alleged complicity in war crimes.
According to an IPSOS poll conducted in October 2011, only 15 percent of residents believed that more than 7.000 people were killed in Srebrenica.
For Hotic, try as she might, her words fall on deaf ears.
“Serbia embraces its charged and convicted [criminals]; it doesn’t consider them to be criminals,” Hotic said.
“We expect [Seselj] to be convicted; that would bring justice for victims … but I know for Seselj, punishment will never touch him. His Serbs won’t allow him to be arrested.”
Hotic lives in the suburbs of Sarajevo, unable to return to her hometown, which is now largely Serb populated. Its Serb mayor also denies that genocide took place in Srebrenica.
“In my building, only one Muslim returned and he was beaten three times. He died in the end. The people that moved into my building are people that I wouldn’t like to meet,” Hotic explained.
“If war criminals are freed, then we survivors would not have freedom any more. They’ll be able to provoke, commit crimes if they’re given this kind of support – with acquittals. Really, all that’s left then is God’s punishment.”