Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Judges in the trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic have heard a fifth week of evidence from the latest witness to testify in his defence, ultra-nationalist Serb politician Vojislav Seselj.
Seselj is included in the list of people who prosecutors say took part in so-called joint criminal enterprises with Milosevic aimed at clearing vast tracts of Croatia and Bosnia of their non-Serb populations.
He is currently awaiting trial in The Hague for crimes including murder, torture and deportations.
This week, in the latest in a series of bold assertions made during his time in the witness stand, Seselj claimed that a dramatic piece of evidence unveiled by prosecutors in the case against Milosevic in June this year is in fact a forgery.
The material – a video allegedly showing Belgrade-commanded paramilitaries murdering Muslims captured following the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995 – is considered so important that prosecutors are seeking to reopen their case in order to include it.
As in so many other matters, however, Seselj appeared to have little firm evidence to hand to back up his serious allegation of foul play.
Also this week, prosecutor Geoffrey Nice continued to use his cross-examination to portray Seselj as a key element in Milosevic’s alleged criminal plans. And he persisted in highlighting past statements in which the witness appeared to confirm important elements of the prosecution case.
The allegations concerning the so-called Scorpions tape – named after the paramilitary group apparently shown carrying out executions – first arose this week when Nice produced a recent written submission by Seselj to the tribunal.
In it, Seselj claimed that the office of the prosecutor “well knows that this is doctored footage” and insisted that the fact would become apparent to anyone who viewed the full tape, rather than just the sections played in court.
Seselj, while admitting that the submission in question had actually been prepared by his team of advisers and that he had only signed it, stood by the allegations it contained.
But he was able to offer little more than speculation to back up the claims. To that end, he ridiculed the idea of anyone choosing to video themselves committing a war crime. And he demanded to know why the filmed executions in question should have taken place in Trnovo, 200 kilometres away from Srebrenica, as is said to be the case by prosecutors.
Pushed to provide some solid piece of evidence on the matter, Seselj claimed that his advisers were in possession of such material and that it would be presented before the tribunal when it came to the time for his own trial.
Quite how Seselj plans to introduce whatever evidence he may or may not have is unclear, since none of the charges against him relate to the murders of Muslim prisoners from Srebrenica.
The prosecution’s approach to Seselj throughout their cross-examination has included trying to show that Milosevic used the witness’ hard-line nationalistic stance as a way of cranking up public hatred towards non-Serbs in the Nineties.
This week, the witness said he stood by a policy held by his Serb Radical Party, SRS, at the time that marshal law should be declared in Kosovo and that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians who apparently lacked Serb citizenship ought to be forced out.
Seselj also defended the so-called retortion principle promoted by the SRS in the early Nineties. According to this rule, it was argued that expulsions of Serbs from Croat-dominated territory should be matched by forced removals of Croats from Serb-held lands.
In an effort to illustrate the concrete effects of Seselj’s hard-line policies, Nice played a number of videos in court.
One showed a Serb fighter being interviewed in the Croatian town of Vukovar. In broken English, the young man insisted that the bloodshed in Croatia would not be over until Serbs had reached the Karlobag-Ogulin-Karlovac-Virovitica line. Seselj has long argued that this line should form the western border of a Greater Serbian state.
Having watched the video, Seselj mocked it too as a fake and joined with Milosevic in ridiculing the idea of a so-called Chetnik - the name given to Serb royalist soldiers during the Second World War and used to describe certain Serbian extremists in the Nineties - speaking English.
Milosevic was similarly entertained by the presence of a Croatian flag in the footage, which he took to be unquestionable proof that it was forged – until Judge O-Gon Kwon pointed out that the flag was about to be burnt.
Seselj strenuously denied in court that his fiery rhetoric had ever been used by Milosevic’s regime as a convenient way of escalating ethnic tensions. “I never disseminated ethnic hatred,” he insisted. “Whenever there were discussions of interethnic relations, I only set out the truth.”
Also this week, Nice continued to draw attention to Seselj’s past interviews, speeches and writings in which he appeared to back up the prosecution contention that police and paramilitary units responsible to Belgrade took part in fighting in Bosnia and Croatia.
Seselj stuck by his claim that many such statements, far from being factually correct, were actually just part of a propaganda campaign he waged against Milosevic in the Nineties.
Milosevic’s decision to call Seselj – a war crimes indictee who has gone out of his way to incriminate him in the past – clearly gives prosecutors any number of avenues to attack both the witness and, through him, the accused.
But Edgar Chen, a long-time observer of the Milosevic trial for the Coalition for International Justice, told IWPR there are various reasons he may have settled on this approach.
As a named participant in the same joint criminal enterprise that Milosevic is said to have taken part in, Chen pointed out, Seselj “may be someone who is in a unique position to speak about allegations in the indictment”.
It is even conceivable, he added, that Milosevic might hope to benefit from the volatile behaviour which helps make Seselj such a risky witness. Having made a point of displaying his contempt for the Hague tribunal throughout his testimony, Seselj this week treated judges to another lecture on the illegality of their institution.
“His presence on the stand may actually show Milosevic, by comparison, in a more positive or reasonable light,” said Chen.
Finally, there is the extra publicity caused by having such a high-profile showman in the witness stand – something Milosevic might well consider to be in his interest, whether or not Seselj’s testimony actually does much for his defence case.
Whatever the case, it became clearer than ever this week that the witness himself is also thoroughly enjoying his time in the limelight. “I like it better in the courtroom than in a prison cell,” he declared at one point in his testimony. “I could keep on coming until the new year as far as I’m concerned.”
As Milosevic announced on September 16 that he would need more time to finish re-examining the witness – taking Seselj into his sixth week on the stand – Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson made it quite plain he didn’t share the enthusiasm.
“I’m very disappointed to hear that Mr Milosevic,” he said.
The trial will resume on September 20.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.
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