Indicted defence witness seizes chance to fight his own corner and entertain the courtroom at the same time.


Indicted defence witness seizes chance to fight his own corner and entertain the courtroom at the same time.

In his second full week testifying on behalf of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, radical Serb nationalist Vojislav Seselj has continued to rail against charges which overlap with his own case at the Hague tribunal.

The war crimes of which Milosevic stands accused include massacres and deportations allegedly carried out during fighting in Croatia by paramilitary units known as “Seselj’s Men”.

Claims that Seselj was responsible for such groups will go to the heart of proceedings against him when his own case finally comes to trial.

This week, the witness seized upon the opportunity in court to claim that the only volunteers he ever recruited during the Balkans conflicts were immediately drafted to fight legally as part of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA.

He also denied that he and Milosevic were ever part of a joint criminal enterprise aimed at ethnically cleansing large swathes of Croatia and Bosnia, as prosecutors claim.

The famously eccentric politician did his own credibility as a witness no favours, however, by proudly declaring in court that he had often found it politically expedient – as well as amusing – to lie in public.

Prosecutors argue that Milosevic – as president of Serbia at the time – played a key role in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia in the early Nineties. Through careful political manoeuvring, they claim, the accused was responsible, behind the scenes, for actions carried out by forces including the JNA, paramilitaries and the Bosnian Serb army.

Seselj dismissed such allegations in court. He insisted that the JNA had always remained answerable to the federal Yugoslav government rather than to the Serbian authorities, and said Milosevic’s role had been restricted to “advising” on how the army might be used.

He added that Serbian officials in Belgrade had never tried to establish any armed force besides the JNA, despite pressure from opposition politicians to set up a separate military.

Seselj also denied allegations that Serbian government police or special forces units were deployed to take part in the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia.

He said Serbian police had even set up checkpoints to prevent paramilitaries from crossing the border to join the conflicts. Courts in Serbia later prosecuted paramilitaries, he said, for crimes committed during the fighting.

As for the volunteers recruited through his own Serb Radical Party, SRS, Seselj insisted they were all fully integrated into the JNA and fought in the same capacity as any other soldier. He insisted that these men were in any case renowned for their discipline.

Also this week, Seselj declared that no one from either the Belgrade government, the Yugoslav authorities or the Bosnian Serb leadership had ever intended that Muslims and Croats should be forced from their homes in Bosnia.

He described allegations that he and Milosevic were involved in a plan to bring about such population movements in order to consolidate Serb control of territories as “absolute nonsense”.

But the content of Seselj's testimony was called into question somewhat when he was given a chance to explain why he had earlier publicly stated that his SRS volunteers were recruited at the request of Serbian secret police chief Jovica Stanisic, and that they were armed with weapons from the JNA.

Seselj replied that those remarks had been intended to attack Stanisic, rather reflect the true position. “I was using every term I could think of short of cursing [Stanisic’s] mother,” he said.

In response to allegations that he once said that non-Serbs ought to have their eyes gouged out with rusty cutlery, Seselj acknowledged that he might have said vaguely similar, but he insisted he was only joking anyway.

Admitting that his sense of humour “might not be everybody’s cup of tea”, the witness cheerfully pressed ahead with more examples of it in the courtroom.

At one point Seselj went off on a complete tangent in his testimony, apparently purely as an excuse to mention his “friend Saddam Hussein”. These remarks earned him a rebuke from Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson, for dubbing the late Pope John Paul II “The Devil’s Apprentice”.

The reference may have been intended as a plug for Seselj’s book of the same title.

Seselj will return to the witness stand when the trial continues on September 5.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.

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