In 1991, the year the former Yugoslavia broke apart and descended into a decade of ethnic conflict, right-wing Serbian paramilitary commander Vojislav Seselj boasted that his troops were perfecting “the art of killing with a rusty shoehorn, so that it will be impossible to determine whether the victim was butchered or died of tetanus.” It was just one example of ruthlessness by the self-proclaimed “Duke of Serbs” in ethnic cleansing campaigns against Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats.
Seselj surrendered to a United Nations war crimes tribunal in 2003; he was released from custody for medical treatment in November 2014. But the former warlord flaunted his freedom by burning EU and NATO flags Thursday outside a high court in Belgrade.
Seselj has thus far evaded a final verdict on his intermittent 13-year trial by hiding from the U.N. in Serbia, after he persuaded the tribunal to let him go home for cancer treatment. Despite repeated demands for his extradition, he has not been sent back to the Hague, where prosecutors hope to wrap up the trial and hand him a 28-year prison sentence for war crimes.
“I will not go voluntarily, but I will use every opportunity to inflict expert, professional, political, and moral damage on the Hague tribunal,” Seselj, 61, told several dozen supporters of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party in Belgrade. He founded that party at the outset of the bloody Yugoslav Wars.
According to prosecutors, Seselj was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians, as well as torture, robbery, sexual assaults, and the targeted destruction of homes, monuments, and holy sites belonging to Croats and Bosnians.
After returning from 11 years of custody in The Hague, Seselj, who in his glory days brandished a pistol at fellow politicians and even brought his guns on live TV, has reemerged as the enraged voice of Serbia’s far right.
Days after arriving in Belgrade in November 2014, he spearheaded an anti-government rally and called for “mass mobilization of Serbian patriots against the current pro-Western regime and to oppose any attempt to make Serbia join both the European Union and NATO.”
Seselj appears to have the upper hand in his rivalry with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, his former protégé, who has since renounced radical nationalism and pursued EU membership. If Seselj were arrested, it could cause Vucic to lose political support from Serbian nationalists who still see Seselj as a hero, not a war criminal.
But the longer the government allows Seselj to escape justice, the more time he has to push back against the European institutions that were instrumental in ending Serbia’s ethnic cleansing rampage in the 1990s.
“It burns well,” Seselj said Thursday as he held up an EU flag one of his supporters lit on fire.
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