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Defence Counsel Imposed on Seselj

Court loses patience with defendant’s “obstructive” behaviour.
By Katy Glassborow
Judges in the case of Serbian ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj announced this week that he would be assigned a permanent defence counsel, despite his stated desire to represent himself in court.

Presiding Judge Alphons Orie said on August 21 that the decision had been made because of the defendant’s persistent obstructive behaviour, and his “unwillingness to understand and respect the ground rules” at the tribunal.

On August 25, the standby defence counsel Tjarda van der Spoel requested permission to appeal the decision, pointing out in a statement that even though accused refuses to speak to him he has made it abundantly clear that he wishes to conduct his own defence.

In February 2003, Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, was indicted in connection with war crimes allegedly committed in Bosnia and Croatia between 1991 and 1993. He turned himself in to the Hague tribunal shortly after his indictment was confirmed.

At his initial appearance before Hague judges, on February 26, 2003, Seselj announced his intention to conduct his own defence, saying his decision was “final and irrevocable”. But the prosecutors have strongly opposed this move, arguing that the accused only wanted to “cause harm to the tribunal and to use the proceedings as a forum for Serb national interests”.

They also expressed their concern that if Seselj represented himself he may behave in a “disruptive, obstructionist or scandalous” manner, hoping to attract media attention.

Under the statutes that govern international war crimes tribunals, those standing trial have the right to represent themselves in court.

However, this right is qualified if a decision is taken that the accused is not able to represent himself effectively, or that in doing so he will damage his health or vastly hamper the speed at which the trial can progress.

When requesting permission to lodge an appeal against the court’s decision, the standby counsel said that imposing a lawyer on Seselj might eventually mean he has to be tried all over again, “The decision to impose counsel affects the overall fairness of the trial, for this reason it is a potential ground for appeal if the accused is convicted.”

In their August 21 decision, the trial judges concluded that Seselj conducting his own defence “may substantially and persistently obstruct the proper and expeditious conduct of a fair trial”.

They explained that their decision to impose permanent defence council upon him is due to his consistent abusive behaviour and deliberate disrespect towards the court. The judges pointed to an occasion where Seselj revealed the name of a protected witness to an unauthorised person over the phone, who then promised to “disable” the witness. They concluded that the language Seselj used in submissions about prosecution witnesses was “intimidating”.

So far, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic - who died in the tribunal’s detention centre in March this year - had been the only tribunal indictee allowed to conduct his own defence. Prosecutors had requested the imposition of a defence counsel in his case because they were concerned for his health and the toll that self-representation was taking on it.

From the beginning of the proceedings against Seselj, Judge Orie says the accused has raised “irrelevant or specious matters amounting to obstructionist behaviour”. Seselj also appeared to take great pleasure in mocking the tribunal whenever an opportunity arose. For example, he declared that the attire of the judges in court was causing him psychological damage. He said he had lost “18 kilogrammes because of my psychological frustration due to your robes”.

Seselj has also misled the court on the treatment he has received in detention, claiming that he had been waiting for months for an operation and that this amounted to “torture”. However a United Nations Detention Unit, UNDU, investigation proved this to have been untrue.

In nearly 200 written submissions to the court, Seselj has used extremely obscene and offensive language in reference to judges and court officials, including the various standby counsel he has been allocated in the past. His attacks centre on anything from their professionalism, ethnicity or appearance.

As yet there is no fixed start date for Seselj’s trial, but discussions in status conferences over the last few months suggest that it will be later on this year.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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