A Serbian ultranationalist accused of war crimes in the Bosnian war returned to a hero’s welcome in Belgrade on Wednesday after he was released by a UN tribunal on health grounds.
The warm reception at Belgrade airport for Vojislav Seselj, alleged to have sent his followers to murder and torture Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs in the early 1990s, is an embarrassment for Serbia’s government as it seeks to advance its EU membership ambitions.
Mr Seselj, 60, arrived on a flight from Amsterdam and was greeted by a brass band and supporters waving Serbian flags and chanting “victory”. The former member of parliament stands accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of inciting mass atrocities and leading a paramilitary group called the Chetniks between 1989 and 1993.
The ICTY said it had released Mr Seselj for medical treatment while judges seek to reach a conclusion in his seven-year trial for instigating, aiding and abetting the persecution of non-Serbs in former Yugoslav territories. Serbian doctors say he suffers from cancer of the colon, which has spread to his liver.
Experts said Mr Seselj’s release posed a challenge for Serbia’s government – led by his former party colleague, Aleksandar Vucic.
Mr Vucic broke away from the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) six years ago to form the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and was elected in 2012 on a pledge to seek membership of the EU.
Mr Seselj has since described the prime minister as a traitor and presented his conditional release by the ICTY as a triumph over the Hague tribunal, which has accused him of contempt of court on three occasions. In one incident, Mr Seselj published a list of witnesses who had given evidence at the tribunal on his website.
“The court’s credibility in the region is going to take another hit over this,” said Dr Andy Aitchison, an expert on the tribunal at the University of Edinburgh. “The decision has already been described as shameful and degrading by media in Bosnia, who have shown Mr Seselj walking free while the families of victims wait for justice.”
Mr Seselj’s triumphant return may cause some discomfort for Mr Vucic internationally – the prime minister has tried to improve his country’s image following last month’s Serbia-Albania football match where political tensions spilled over into violence on the pitch.
But experts said Mr Seselj’s domestic influence in Serbia was limited, as shown by a poor electoral performance in 2012 in which none of his MPs were elected. They said Mr Vucic was unlikely to shelter the former MP from prosecution.
“I don’t believe Vucic will be drawn into a hasty reaction by this. In fact, the government’s response may reflect how much Vucic’s government has evolved,” said Dennis Gratz, a lecturer at the University of Sarajevo.
Analysts said Mr Vucic will be expected to return his former colleague to the Hague to face sentencing if the ICTY reaches a conclusion.
“This may be embarrassing for Vucic internationally,” said Mr Aitchison. “But all suspects wanted by the court have now been arrested, including Mladic, who is more popular than Seselj. If they can return Mladic, they won’t have a problem returning Seselj.”
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