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Seselj Denies Hrtkovci Croats Were Refugees

Leader of Serbian nationalists said non-Serbs who left Vojvodina village were in no rush to go.
By Simon Jennings
A nationalist Serbian politician said Croats who left northern Serbia in 1992 could not be considered refugees as the fact that they had time to sell and exchange property showed they were in no hurry to depart.

This week, Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, suggested that as non-Serbs leaving the Vojvodina province of Serbia had enough time to swap or sell their homes before they left, they could not have been fleeing as a result of genuine fear, and therefore could not be classed as refugees.

The accused, who is standing trial at the Hague tribunal, questioned the judgement of the prosecution’s expert demographer Ewa Tabeau, who testified about the departure of Croats and other non-Serbs from the village of Hrtkovci in the Vojvodina region in the early Nineties. The witness gave evidence on a report she had compiled which listed 722 Croats who left Hrtkovci in and around 1992, and which stated that at least 113 Croats ended up as refugees in Croatia.

“Can we claim a refugee is someone who has the time to find someone with whom he will exchange his property, draw up a contract… and organise his leaving? Can such a person be a refugee?” asked Seselj.

“My thesis is that not a single Croat from Vojvodina was a refugee in Croatia because none of them left leaving their property behind,” he said.

The accused is on trial for the murder and persecution of non-Serbs between 1991 and 1993, which is alleged to have been part of a wider effort to join territories within the former Yugoslavia into a single “Greater Serbia”. According to the indictment, the accused called for Croat civilians to be expelled from parts of Vojvodina and “instigated his followers and the local authorities to engage in a persecution campaign against the local Croat population”.

Previous witnesses have testified that prior to 1992, Hrtkovci was a peaceful, predominantly Croat village of around 2,000 people. They have said that Croats were threatened into exchanging property with Serb refugees coming into the area.

This week, Tabeau testified about the contents of her report on Hrtkovci, which drew on three main sources – a record taken by Croat authorities of refugees from Hrtkovci still resident in Croatia in 2005; the book How My People Were Dying, by former Hrtkovci parish priest Marko Kljajic, which listed 280 expelled Croat families; and parish records of marriage and christening certificates issued in Hrtkovci during that period.

Tabeau testified that out of the 722 people who left Hrtkovci at this time, the majority left between May and August 1992.

Prosecutors say that Seselj made a speech at a rally in the village on May 6, 1992 which prompted Serbs arriving there from Croatia to drive out the local Croats.

“Soon after Seselj spoke, a massive campaign of harassment and intimidation directed at non-Serbs, particularly Croats, took hold in Hrtkovci,” the prosecutors claimed in their pre-trial brief. They say that Serbs arriving from Croatia on buses organised by Seselj’s SRS in 1992 intimidated Croats into giving them their homes.

While the witness explained that she did not study the causes of the departures, and only noted the timing of them, she said that the fact that the authorities had legally registered the Croats as refugees was evidence that the people had left against their will.

Tabeau explained to the court her methods of gathering data. People entering Croatia from Serbia needed marriage or christening certificates, and the rise in the number of requests for them during 1992 showed how many Croats left Hrtkovci, explained Tabeau.

“It’s an explicit expression of the intention to depart… The most requests for marriage certificates were made in 1992. Eighty-two out of 94 requests [made between 1949 and 1999] were made in 1992,” said Tabeau, adding that most of these were in June of that year.

During his cross-examination of the witness, Seselj focused on the definition of a refugee – which he said was defined by the fact that he is fleeing something and that he is afraid of something, either real or imagined. While he acknowledged that the non-Serbs who left Hrtkovci felt fear, he suggested this was “fear of uncertainty, of some undefined danger”, rather than as a result of a real threat, and did not make them refugees.

“There is one fear that leads to one becoming a refugee and the other fear leads to a certain exchange of population, but this is not by way of becoming a refugee,” he said.

Seselj also implied that because those who left voluntarily exchanged their houses before they went, this showed that they were choosing to leave, and proved further that they were not refugees.

However, Judge Frederik Harhoff told the accused that a voluntary exchanging of houses does not mean that Croats left of their own accord. “You cannot conclude from the fact that people exchanged property voluntarily that they [left voluntarily],” he said.

The accused then argued that the witness had gathered data on the numbers of people classified as refugees by the Croatian government without actually ascertaining for herself whether they merited refugee status or not.

He said that the Croatian authorities’ classification of refugees at that time was not up to the standard outlined by the Geneva conventions, although he did not explain this point further. He questioned why Tabeau – as a scientist and someone who used the term refugee according to its legal definition under international law – had not disputed the Croatian authorities’ classification when compiling her report.

Under the 1951 Geneva Convention, a refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

“If you establish someone is a refugee, you [must] look at the definition from the Geneva convention, from international law in general, that’s what you use as your yardstick, not how [the] Croat authorities registered a particular person,” he said.

“Are you putting your full trust in the Croatian authorities?”

Tabeau replied that the Croatian government was authorised to make legal decisions on who qualified as a refugee.

“I have no reason to disbelieve this authority,” she said.

Seselj then accused her of having “taken sides” on the matter because she accepted the data given to her by the Croatian government.

However, Tabeau explained that when compiling her report she had consulted both the Croatian and Serbian authorities about internally displaced persons and refugees during the period in question.

In addition to the core proceedings this week, presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti ruled himself out of hearing a prosecution motion to bring contempt of court charges against Seselj.

The prosecution has submitted a confidential motion to charge the accused for allegedly disclosing the names of protected witnesses in the trial, in his book The Hrtkovci Affair.

Antonetti said that his ruling on such allegations could affect his judgement in the main case.

Seselj approved Antonetti’s decision.

He denied that he was intimidating witnesses and said the book – which his associates compiled for him – contained the pseudonyms used by the prosecution in place of the real names of witnesses.

However, he said that as he was already facing a possible life sentence he did not care about a seven-year prison term – the maximum sentence awarded for contempt of court.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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