Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Court Hears of Alleged Bid to Discredit Seselj

Witness says the late Zoran Djindjic instructed him to give statement against accused to tribunal prosecutors.
By Simon Jennings
A witness testified that he gave a false statement to Hague tribunal investigators after he was told by then Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic to undermine Vojislav Seselj politically.

Aleksandar Stefanovic told the Hague tribunal this week that Djindjic told him to compromise the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, by giving a statement to the Office of the Prosecution, OTP, in 2003.

“[Djindjic] said go and discredit him politically,” former SRS member Stefanovic told judges via video link from the OTP, premises in Belgrade.

“That was a task assigned to me that I should say something bad about [Seselj].”

Seselj is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for murders, persecutions and torture carried out between August 1991 and September 1993 in an effort to expel the non-Serb population from parts of Croatia and Bosnia.

According to the indictment, Seselj’s bid to create a “Greater Serbia” was part of a joint criminal enterprise which involved senior figures in the Serbian regime, including late president Slobodan Milosevic.

But Stefanovic – who helped set up the SRS in the early 1990s and served as its secretary-general before parting company with Seselj in 1996 – this week described the defendant as “a very decent man”, telling judges that he “did not commit any crimes”.

Stefanovic came to testify following a summons by judges to appear as a witness before the court.

He explained how he was allegedly approached by Djindjic, who came to power in January 2001 and was assassinated in Belgrade two years later.

“[Djindjic] kept saying the Serbian Radical Party was upsetting the fledgling democracy in Serbia,” said Stefanovic, adding that the order to give a statement to undermine Seselj had also come from then chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.

He said that he was assured by both Djindjic and Del Ponte that he would never have to testify in The Hague itself so as not to threaten his own political career.

Seselj has claimed previously that his Hague trial is politically motivated, basing his argument on an extract from a book published by Del Ponte in April this year. This describes how in February 2003, Djindjic reportedly told the former chief prosecutor to take Seselj to The Hague and not allow him to return.

However, prosecutors have shown that the indictment against Seselj – which is dated February 14, 2003 – was confirmed at the tribunal before any such conversation took place.

Stefanovic said this week that he knew that Seselj was wanted in The Hague as far back as 2002.

The witness also claimed under oath that he disagreed with much of the statement he gave in February 2003 and confirmed in 2006.

This had supported many of the prosecution’s allegations, in particular that the SRS had started recruiting volunteers in May 1991 in order to send them to the front line on behalf of the Belgrade-controlled Yugoslav army, JNA.

The prosecution alleges that, as leader of the SRS, Seselj actively recruited volunteers who went on to commit the persecutions and killings of non-Serbs with which he is now charged.

The witness had also described Seselj as a greedy man who was more interested in money than politics or even his own family. However, in his testimony this week, Stefanovic went back on those allegations.

“There was no recruitment [of volunteers] by the Serbian Radical Party and I say that with full responsibility,” he said.

Stefanovic also said this week that the SRS war staff was in fact a “humanitarian organisation” which helped refugees caught up in the war.

“It was called the war staff, but its function was not that,” he said. “It was to feed people, to lodge people.”

The prosecution alleges that the volunteers viewed Seselj as their “supreme commander” and that it was under his direction that they fought to extend Serbian territory into Croatia and Bosnia and committed crimes while doing so.

However, Stefanovic said the SRS was only assisting volunteers who wanted to help fellow Serbs on the front line.

“Seselj did not influence anybody and prevail upon them to go to the front,” he told judges.

“The party would transport these people to the JNA barracks. The party’s role over them probably ceased at that point.

“[Volunteers] were mostly under the control of the army.”

The witness also said that the volunteers did not commit any crimes.

During Seselj’s cross-examination, Stefanovic further contradicted his original statements.

Stefanovic denied that as president of the SRS, Seselj was motivated by money. “I always said how reticent you were and how you did not like spending money,” he said.

After these apparent contradictions, Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti warned the witness that he could be charged with perjury if he was not telling the truth.

The trial has already seen one witness convicted of contempt of court for refusing to testify. Prosecutors have also tried to bring contempt proceedings against Seselj for allegedly revealing the names of protected witnesses – a charge the accused rejects.

Stefanovic went on to deny that Seselj had excellent relations with Slobodan Milosevic.

The prosecution alleges that Seselj cooperated with Milosevic from August 1991, but Stefanovic said he thought Seselj only met Milosevic for the first time in April 1992.

Asked by Judge Antonetti to be more specific, Stefanovic referred to his own meeting with Milosevic in June 1992 and said Seselj had already met him “several months before”.

Not for the first time during the trial, Seselj sought to distance himself from Milosevic, claiming that he had been in prison three times under his presidency.

Although judges were undecided as to whether to admit Stefanovic’s original statement into evidence this week, they asked for it to be filed by the court pending their decision at the end of the trial.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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