Serb war crimes suspect Seselj to be judged in absence

Vojislav Seselj, a firebrand Serb nationalist, faces charges of ethnic cleansing against Croats, Muslims and other non-Serbs during the brutal Balkan wars in the 1990s (AFP Photo/Andrej Isakovic)

The Hague (AFP) - UN war crimes judges will deliver their verdict against radical Serb leader Vojislav Seselj in his absence for medical reasons, the court announced Wednesday, after the firebrand nationalist refused to return to The Hague.

Seselj's judgement on nine charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity will be delivered at 0800 GMT on March 31 "in the absence of the accused", the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia's (ICTY) judges ordered.

It is the first time that judges at the ICTY will hand down an initial verdict without the accused in court -- although defendants have been absent for appeals judgements.

Seselj was allowed to return to Serbia in 2014 for cancer treatment, and the judges said Wednesday his medical care "cannot be interrupted or stopped for him to be prosecuted in The Hague."

Seselj is accused of leading Serb volunteers to "cleanse" large parts of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia's northern Vojvodina region during the Balkans wars which erupted amid the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

He faces three counts of crimes against humanity, including persecution, deportation and forcible transfers and six other war crimes charges including murder and torture.

Seselj surrendered to the ICTY in February 2003 and was transferred to the tribunal the same month. The trial, which began in 2007, wrapped up in March 2012.

Since his 2014 release Seselj has repeatedly lashed out at the court, vowing not to return for his sentencing or to serve any time, as well as resuming his fiery nationalist rhetoric.

Last week he set fire to EU and NATO flags in Belgrade and a day later he was paying his respects at the grave of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic -- who died in his jail cell in 2006 while on trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

As leader of the far-right Serbian Radical Party, Seselj also intends to run for parliament in the country's election in April.

Seselj carries three other separate convictions -- including a two-year sentence -- for contempt of court before the ICTY.

The decision comes as judges prepare to hand down their verdict against Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic next week for his role in Bosnia's bloody civil war in which more than 100,000 people died and millions were left homeless.