Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Vojislav Seselj in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
In closing arguments this week, prosecutors at the Hague tribunal demanded a 28-year prison sentence for Serbian nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj because of his “grave and heinous crimes” .
“Not only were the accused’s crimes massive in scale they were also particularly brutal,” said prosecuting lawyer Mathias Marcussen. “His acts and conduct contributed to the murder of children, newborns, pregnant women, the elderly and the sick. Crosses [were] carved on the skin of Muslims, and the rape of both women and men [occurred] under the most sadistic of circumstances.”
In addition, Marcussen argued that “the accused has used the trial as a political platform for his continued agenda of Serb ethnic supremacy. He has made every effort to obstruct the tribunal, been contemptuous throughout the trial, and verbally abused witnesses in court despite instructions to cease.”
Since his surrender to the tribunal in 2003, Seselj has insisted on representing himself. The trial has endured repeated delays since it officially began in November 2007, a full year after the original trial date was postponed because Seselj went on hunger strike. He remains leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, based in Belgrade.
He is charged with nine counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including murder, torture and forcible transfer – for atrocities carried out in an effort to expel non-Serbs from parts of Croatia and Bosnia between August 1991 and September 1993. He is further accused of giving numerous inflammatory speeches and recruiting a force of volunteers who murdered, raped and tortured non-Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia.
In addition, he is charged with being part of a “joint criminal enterprise” together with numerous high ranking Serb political, military and paramilitary wartime leaders, including ex-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.
Prosecuting lawyer Marcussen noted that it was on March 5, 1992 – exactly 20 years ago – that Seselj made a speech warning of “rivers of blood” if Bosnia and Hercegovina insisted on seeking independence from Yugoslavia.
“By the end of March, rivers in blood flowed in Bosnia-Hercegovina the same way as they had in Croatia,” Marcussen said.
Volunteers recruited by Seselj participated in “savage” crimes and were so closely associated with him that they were known as “Seseljevci”, or “Seselj’s Men”, Marcussen said.
He pointed to the example of one unnamed witness who was 22 when Serb forces attacked the northeast Bosnian city of Zvornik. The witness, his father and three brothers were captured, and Seseljevci forces began taking prisoners out in groups and shooting them, the prosecutor said.
The witness was among them, and when the Seseljevci started shooting, he fell to the ground, but survived and escaped afterwards. When the victims were exhumed after the war, the witness’s father and brothers were among several hundred corpses, Marcussen said.
Prosecutors say the accused deployed thousands of Seseljevci to Bosnia and Hercegovina and Croatia at the request of Milosevic and other participants in the joint criminal enterprise. He also coordinated with the Yugoslav army, the Bosnian Serb military and other forces once his men were on the ground.
“The evidence shows that the accused was more than a recruiter of volunteers,” the prosecutor said. “[Seselj] exercised his authority and influence over each and every aspect related to the volunteers, even though he did not have operational command.”
For example, the accused “decided where they [were] deployed, and deployed them in discrete units identified as Seseljevci”. He or his “war staff” also appointed the unit commanders, the prosecutor said.
He filled his volunteers with “hateful propaganda that they took with them to the front lines” and frequently described Croats as “Ustashas”, a term referring to Croatian fascists in the Second World War, prosecuting lawyer Lisa Biersay said.
When Seselj visited his volunteers in the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991 – shortly before the city was “razed to the ground” by Serb forces – he allegedly told them that “no Ustasha shall leave Vukovar alive”.
“The accused poisoned and pounded non-Serbs with a campaign of hatred,” Biersay said, adding that Seselj was a “charismatic media star” who led the second most popular political party in Serbia, and relished his “quasi-military leader” status.
Biersay referred to a 1992 radio interview where “the accused bragged that his volunteers helped to destroy ‘pure Croatian villages’”. At a press conference on May 28, 1992, he allegedly spoke of “cleansing the left bank of the Drina River” which had a mostly Bosnian-Muslim, or Bosniak, population.
“Serbs and non-Serbs saw for themselves that the accused did and could make threats of violence real,” Biersay said. “In his final brief, the accused tried to persuade the chamber that he was a simple opposition politician and that he is now being prosecuted for his political ideology.
“As a matter of fact and law, his being a politician does not absolve him of responsibility for committing, aiding and abetting and instigating the charged crimes,” she said.
In addition, Seselj committed persecution by giving a “hate speech” on May 6, 1992 in the Serbian village of Hrtkovci where he called for the expulsion of Croats and read out a list of individuals who should leave, Biersay said. The crowd shouted “Ustasha out!” and as a result of the speech, some Croats fled out of fear, she said.
At the conclusion of the prosecution’s remarks, Marcussen pointed out that Seselj “showed no remorse” and on the contrary even said that his wartime speeches “are the words of a genius, that I am still proud of even today”.
Seselj will deliver his own closing arguments next week.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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