UN war crimes judges Thursday acquitted radical Serb leader Vojislav Seselj on all nine charges of committing atrocities in the 1990s Balkans wars, in a surprise judgement which was swiftly denounced by Croatia.
"The chamber by majority holds that the prosecution has not provided sufficient evidence to establish that the crimes were committed" by Seselj, Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti said at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
"Following the verdict, Vojislav Seselj is now a free man." Seselj, 61, had faced nine charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity over his alleged ruthless quest to unite "all Serbian lands" in a "Greater Serbia".
Prosecutors had alleged he was behind the murder of many Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians, as well as the forced deportation of "tens of thousands" from large areas of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and Serbia.
But the judges found that although crimes were committed, Seselj had not had "hierarchial" responsibility for his paramilitary forces after they came under the control of the Serbian army and could not be held responsible for their crimes.
They said the prosecution's case was full of "confusion" and "ambiguities" and had failed to clarify the broader context in which events in Croatia and Bosnia took place.
The prosecution had given "at best an interpretation that hides the way the events unfolded and at worst distorts them in relation to the evidence presented to the chamber," Antonetti said.
The prosecutor's office said it took note of the verdict and would carefully review it to see if there are grounds to appeal.
"We fully understand that many victims and communities will be disappointed by the trial chamber's judgement," the prosecutor's office added in a statement.
Seselj, who was excused from attending the judgement on medical grounds after treatment for colon cancer, welcomed the verdict.
"This time, after all the trials that accused innocent Serbs who received draconian sentences, two judges appeared who are honourable and fair people," Seselj told reporters in Belgrade.
Croatia's Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic however slammed the acquittal, saying: "The verdict is shameful. It is the defeat of The Hague court and the prosecution." The judgement comes exactly a week after former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in jail for genocide and nine other charges by the UN war crimes court.
While the ICTY judges agreed that "Seselj was driven by an ardent political ambition to create a Greater Serbia" during the Balkans wars, they ruled this was in "principle a political plan, not a criminal plan".
And they ruled that "a lot of the evidence shows that the collaboration (by Seselj) was aimed at defending the Serbs and the traditional Serb territories, or at preserving Yugoslavia, not at committing the alleged crimes".
It was the first time that judges at the ICTY returned an initial verdict without the accused in court - although defendants have been absent for appeals judgements.
While Seselj maintains he is in poor health, he was seen earlier this month at a rally in Belgrade setting fire to EU and NATO flags as well as paying his respects at the grave of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic - who died in his cell in The Hague in 2006 while on trial.
Seselj voluntarily surrendered to the ICTY in 2003, but was released in 2014 because of his poor healt and has since refused to return to The Hague from Belgrade.
Seselj's trial started in 2006, but was halted only weeks later after he went on hunger strike. It was then nullified.
A new trial started in late 2007 and proceeded with multiple delays until the closing arguments in March 2012, when prosecutors said Seselj had warned "rivers of blood" would flow in Bosnia if his vision for a greater Serbian state was opposed.
Seselj, who represented himself, accused the Croats of starting the war during the break-up of Yugoslavia, forcing the Serbs to defend themselves.