Eccentric witness tries patience of prosecutors and judges.


Eccentric witness tries patience of prosecutors and judges.

Judges in the trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic continued to hear wide-ranging testimony this week from maverick ultra-nationalist Serb politician Vojislav Seselj.

Seselj is currently awaiting trial at the war crimes tribunal, charged with responsibility for atrocities including murders, torture and deportations in Croatia and Bosnia in the early Nineties.

He first took to the stand last week to testify as part of the defence case being mounted by Milosevic, who is representing himself in court.

His evidence has since touched on events in each of the three areas where the ex-president is accused of responsibility for war crimes – Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

Apparently enjoying the break from the tribunal’s detention unit, Seselj this week rubbished allegations made by prosecutors against Milosevic. He even went so far as to criticise the accused for having been too soft during the Balkans conflicts.

Judges interrupted on a number of occasions, however, to warn that much of the witness’s rambling and often apparently groundless evidence had little place in a serious legal defence.

Seselj’s testimony began by focussing on events in Kosovo in the run-up to the spring of 1999, when security forces under Milosevic’s control allegedly used brutal tactics to drive hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes.

The witness, who was deputy prime minister of Serbia at the time, dismissed the claim that the corpses of hundreds of Albanian victims were transported to Serbia and dumped there in an effort to cover up war crimes in Kosovo.

Bodies later recovered from mass graves across Serbia – including in the grounds of a police training centre near Belgrade – were planted there by conspirators, he insisted, who were determined to see Milosevic go to The Hague.

Seselj offered no solid evidence to back up his claims, however, and Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson – who had at first expressed interest in hearing evidence on this important issue – eventually warned Milosevic that such speculation would do little to help his case.

Later in the week, Seselj’s testimony concerning the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia descended into a protracted debate about the meaning of the term Greater Serbia, often used in connection with the Milosevic trial.

In the Nineties, Milosevic allegedly sought to establish a state that would bring together all Serbs under a single government.

Seselj claimed in court, however, that the term Greater Serbia had been misconstrued in proceedings before the tribunal.

In fact, the witness said, his own Serbian Radical Party had been alone in aspiring to establish a Greater Serbia. The notion, he explained, referred to the aspiration that those who think of themselves as Muslims and Croats would come to recognise their true Serb heritage and would live together in unity with Orthodox Christian Serbs.

The accused, Seselj added, had never held such an ambition.

Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice responded that his team had never in fact suggested that Milosevic bought into any such an ideology. References to Greater Serbia had only been intended to show that the accused had territorial ambitions over a certain geographical area, he said, without suggesting what ideology motivated those ambitions.

Milosevic, for his part, jumped at the chance to attack the prosecution case, dismissing Nice’s explanation as nonsense and accusing him of trying to hold two positions at once.

“It is my fundamental right to know what I’m being accused of in order to answer these accusations,” he insisted.

A disgruntled Milosevic later went on the offensive again by asking Seselj to explain why Hague prosecutors had not taken more action against those responsible for ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Croatia.

When the question was disallowed by Judge Robinson, Milosevic, clearly determined to score a political point, declared, “Not everyone listening to this is an idiot.”

He then took advantage of the last seconds of the session to launch into a tirade in which he assured Nice that he would one day be held accountable for his “crimes” in the courtroom. An unimpressed Judge Robinson cut the accused short in order to adjourn proceedings for the day.

The panel of judges in this case, while used to dealing with Milosevic’s belligerence, have had twice as much to put up with over the past few days, with Seselj in the witness stand.

Earlier in the week, Judge Robinson demanded to know why Seselj was refusing to rise to his feet like everyone else when the judges entered and left the room, in accordance with court protocol.

The witness, obviously relishing the chance to have a dig at the court, declared that he was uncomfortable about what he claimed were parallels between the bench’s red and black robes and the outfits worn by priests during the Catholic Inquisition.

He added that the judges’ practice of bowing before taking their seats also reminded him of a “satanic ritual”, which only increased his reluctance to take part.

Seselj eventually agreed to set aside such concerns, after Judge Robinson reminded him of the possibility of bringing his testimony to an early close.

Milosevic will continue to question Seselj when the trial resumes on August 30.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.

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