A United Nations court has cleared veteran Serbian ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj of war crimes charges, in a verdict hailed by allies including a senior Russian official and denounced by Croatia and many people across the Balkans.
Prosecutors had sought a 28-year jail sentence for Mr Seselj's over his alleged role in forming Serb paramilitary groups and inciting them to commit crimes including murder, torture and the forced deportation of tens of thousands of non-Serbs from parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia.
Deciding two-to-one to acquit Mr Seselj (61), the UN judges at The Hague ruled that his bid to carve out a “Greater Serbia” from collapsing Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was a political rather than criminal plan, and that his likely moral authority over Serb paramilitary groups did not extend to control over their actions.
"After so many proceedings in which innocent Serbs were given draconian punishments, this time two honest judges showed they valued honour more than political pressure," Mr Seselj said in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, to where he was allowed to return on health grounds from detention in The Hague in 2014.
His acquittal came a week after the same UN court – the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – convicted former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic of genocide and war crimes, including the 1995 massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo during Bosnia's 1992-5 conflict.
Mr Seselj led a protest march of Serbian ultra-nationalists in Belgrade after that verdict, and on Thursday he declared that the dream of a “Greater Serbia” that he shared with Karadzic and others involved in the Yugoslav wars was “immortal”.
“I don’t feel guilty about anything that happened in the 1990s,” he added.
Mr Seselj said he would now prepare for Serbia's April 24th elections, at which his Radical Party hopes to return to parliament on a strident anti-EU and anti-Nato platform and calls to strengthen ties with Moscow.
"I congratulate my friend on victory!" tweeted Russia's nationalist deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin. "But who will restore his health, ruined by prison and public humiliation?"
The verdict appalled many Serb liberals as well as Croats and Bosnia Muslims, whose communities were brutally targeted by Serb paramilitary units during the Balkan wars.
"This verdict is shameful. It is a defeat for the Hague tribunal and the prosecution," said Croatian prime minister Tihomir Oreskovic during a visit to the town of Vukovar, where Serb paramilitaries committed atrocities in a 1991 battle.
“This is a man who has never shown remorse for the things he has done, not even today. He’s a man who burns the flags of Croatia and the EU,” he added.
Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor at The Hague tribunal, said he would consider an appeal after studying a verdict that was "absolutely not in line with the factual reality".
“We understand that many victims will be disappointed. We in a large part share their frustrations,” he added.
Prominent Serbian human rights activist Natasa Kandic said some of the judges' reasoning ran "contrary to sane logic."