Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Prosecutors mounting the war crimes case against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic this week set about cross-examining the latest witness to testify in his defence, radical Serb nationalist Vojislav Seselj.
Milosevic called Seselj as a witness to speak about events in the Balkans throughout the Nineties, which he experienced firsthand as an opposition politician in Serbia and later as the country’s deputy prime minister.
The witness wrapped up his examination-in-chief this week by blaming the most notorious episode of that period – the massacre of Bosnian Muslim prisoners from the town of Srebrenica – on the French secret service.
When it came to the cross-examination, prosecutor Geoffrey Nice had no shortage of topics to raise.
Seselj himself is currently awaiting trial at the Hague tribunal on war crimes charges including murder, torture and deportation. Nice confronted him in court with a series of excerpts from impassioned speeches he made in the early Nineties, which seemed clearly geared towards stirring up ethnic grievances.
Nice was also keen to discuss interviews given by Seselj in the past, in which the witness repeatedly appeared to say things which could implicate Milosevic in war crimes.
Finally, he demanded to know why the chamber should have any faith whatsoever in a witness like Seselj, who makes no bones about his contempt for the tribunal.
In a separate Hague trial, judges have ruled that the number of Muslim men and boys murdered after the fall of the United Nations-protected enclave of Srebrenica in 1995 probably stands at somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000. They placed the blame for the massacre squarely on the shoulders of the Bosnian Serb army.
But Seselj claimed this week that this widely accepted figure is vastly exaggerated. And he argued that the only murders which did occur in Srebrenica – probably involving closer to 1,000 victims – were in fact carried out by mercenaries in the employ of French intelligence agents. The aim, he said, was to smear the Serb leadership.
Seselj apparently learnt of this conspiracy from reports drafted by the Serbian intelligence services. He was able to recall little, however, about the evidence that the reports had provided in support of their conclusions.
Given the chance to begin cross-examination, Nice devoted a lot of time to confronting Seselj with excerpts from interviews and speeches he gave in the early Nineties.
In various clips, the witness recommended the “amputation” of Croatia, warned that Yugoslavia would soon become “Serboslavia” and stated that Bosnian Muslims who weren’t prepared to show loyalty to a Serb state should “start packing”. Elsewhere, he made repeated references to past crimes against Serbs and warned that anyone considering inflicting such suffering again ought to bear in mind that “revenge is blind”.
Seselj denied that he had been seeking to stir Serbs into a frenzy of hatred, or that he had hoped to instil fear in other ethnic groups. In many cases, he said, he was simply doing a favour to both Serbs and non-Serbs alike by warning them about potential dangers they faced.
Nice also questioned Seselj in relation to a prosecution theory that one of the players in the conflicts of the early Nineties was a unit known as the Red Berets, who were led by one Franko Simatovic and were directly subordinated to the Serbian state security service.
If proven to be true, this would provide a relatively clear way for prosecutors to trace responsibility for war crimes directly back to Milosevic’s Belgrade authorities.
Seselj claimed in court, however, that the unit referred to by prosecutors was only formed in 1996, after the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia came to an end.
He stuck by his story when confronted with a previous interview in which he appeared to suggest that it had existed earlier than that. Seselj claimed his comments in the interview referred to an entirely separate group of soldiers, who were also associated with Simatovic and were also known as the Red Berets, but who weren’t responsible to Belgrade.
Elsewhere, Seselj continued to play down other past statements in which he linked Milosevic with the recruitment and arming of Serbian citizens who were being sent to fight in Croatia and Bosnia, and in which he suggested Serbian police had been involved in the Bosnian war.
The witness has claimed throughout his testimony that he only ever said such things as part of a propaganda campaign against Milosevic, who he considered a political competitor at the time.
He has argued that this was his political duty. And he has insisted that these statements were not really lies because the Serbian public recognised them as untrue and took them in the spirit of a kind of private joke at Milosevic’s expense.
But Nice seized on such examples as an opening to attack the credibility of the witness, emphasising that his contemptuous attitude towards the Hague tribunal would make him even happier to lie to its judges.
Building on this approach, he asked Seselj to confirm the titles of a number of his books, as advertised on the website of his Serbian Radical Party, SRS. These included “In the Jaws of the Whore Carla Del Ponte” – a reference to the Hague tribunal’s chief prosecutor – and another which referred to court president Theodor Meron as a “genocidal Israeli diplomat”.
The witness also gleefully agreed to read out choice excerpts from a submission he had previously filed with the tribunal registry. In some of the passages, he addressed court staff with “fuck you all”, accused them of hampering his defence and warned that they would eventually “have to eat the shit [they] have excreted”.
Seselj stood his ground in court, labelling Nice “perfidious” and insisting to judges that their “anti-Serb” institution was the first tribunal ever to be established with the aim of bringing about peace rather than justice.
The attack on Seselj’s credibility scored a further neat success when Nice put it to the witness that records of his past interviews suggested that he was an exceptionally talented liar.
Faced with the choice of defending his character and his testimony or taking yet another personal crack at Nice, Seselj showed little hesitation. “I’d like you to be as convincing as that when you’re lying,” he replied.
Prosecutors will continue to cross-examine Seselj when the trial resumes on September 14.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.
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