BRUSSELS — A United Nations war crimes court on Wednesday sentenced a Serbian ultranationalist to ten years in prison, overturning his acquittal over crimes against humanity and other charges during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
Vojislav Seselj, who leads the Serbian Radical Party and is a lawmaker in the Serbian parliament, was acquitted in 2016 of nine war crimes and crimes against humanity charges because of insufficient evidence.
Wednesday's sentence centered on a speech Seselj gave in the Serbian village of Hrtkovci close to the Croatian border on May 6, 1992, which resulted in dozens of ethnic Croats being deported.
Prosecutors had accused him of war crimes including persecution, murder and torture and had demanded a 28-year sentence for his support of Serb paramilitaries during the bloody wars in Croatia and Bosnia that claimed over 100,000 lives and left millions homeless.
Judge Theodor Meron said the court found him guilty of "instigating persecution, forcible displacement, deportation, and other inhumane acts" in Hrtkovci.
The ruling on Wednesday at The Hague, Netherlands, left Seselj a convicted war criminal, yet he remained free because he had already spent nearly 12 years in tribunal custody since surrendering in 2003.
Seselj told The Associated Press that Wednesday's was ruling "illegal," adding that he was "proud of all the war crimes and crimes against humanity that were attributed to me. And I am ready to repeat them in the future."
Seselj said judges "lied that there were systematic attacks" on Croats in Serbia.
During the war, the far-right leader won notoriety for rhetoric that incited ethnic hatred among the ex-Yugoslav nations. In one speech, he had called for eyes of Croats to be gouged out "with rusty spoons."
The prosecution said that acquitting Seselj would have damaged the legacy of the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Croatia's foreign ministry said the verdict against Seselj was proof of "planned criminal acts" against the country in the 1990s. It however called Seselj's sentence "is too lenient in relation to the committed crimes" by his supporters during the Balkan wars.
Seselj surrendered to the court in The Hague in February 2003. He was released late in 2014 on compassionate grounds due to ill health but kept up his ultranationalist stance in the Serbian parliament.
Amnesty International Europe Director Gauri van Gulik called the ruling Wednesday "a welcome development which delivers long-delayed justice to thousands of victims of the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia."
The appeals court did not fully overturn Seselj's 2016 acquittal, but Van Gulik said Wednesday's decision showed "there was indeed a 'widespread or systematic attack against the non-Serbian civilian population in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.'"