Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Seselj Party Accused of Witness Intimidation

Leading NGO says there is evidence that SRS is pressuring prosecution witnesses to testify for defence.
By Simon Jennings
Human rights activists say Serbian ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, could be using his political links to harass prosecution witnesses in his war crimes trial.



They are also concerned about how much contact Seselj has with supporters in Belgrade from his cell in The Hague, which they say could enable him to indirectly pressure witnesses.



Natasa Kandic, the executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC, in Belgrade told IWPR that she believed witnesses were being intimidated by the SRS and were now afraid to testify at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY.



Seselj is using his influence and contacts in order to prevent former SRS party members from testifying for the ICTY prosecution, said Kandic.



Kandic’s allegations are based on contact she had with two witnesses – Aleksandar Gajic and another person whose identity cannot be revealed for security reasons – who were due to testify for the prosecution. Kandic said Gajic, a former SRS volunteer, told her during several conversations that he no longer wanted to testify, as he was coming under pressure from Seselj’s party not to do so.



According to the HLC head, Gajic then changed his position and agreed to take the stand for Seselj’s defence.



Kandic said Gajic made claims in the Serbian media that she had paid him and other witnesses to testify against the SRS leader. She told IWPR that she suspects Gajic changed his mind under duress.



“For me, it was clear that he was under the pressure of the Radicals,” said Kandic.



Seselj is on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in a bid to create a “Greater Serbia” between 1991 and 1993. He stands accused of encouraging his SRS party volunteers to murder and torture non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.



Kandic told IWPR of her fears that a number of prosecution witnesses are being coerced into withdrawing testimony, and even switching over to appear for the defence.



“Witnesses are under pressure,” said Kandic. “All pressure is going through the Radical Party.”



Kandic said that she was told by the two witnesses that a former senior party officer in the SRS, Ljubisa Petkovic, telephoned them and “advised them to testify for Seselj”.



Petkovic had himself been due to testify at the tribunal for the prosecution, but has tried to switch over to appear for the defence. He was recently transferred to the ICTY on contempt of court charges, after failing to respond to a subpoena for him to take the stand for the prosecution.



Kandic claims that other prosecution witnesses who switched to the defence are now – following what she says is SRS intimidation – accusing prosecutors of pressuring them to testify against Sesejl.



Many witnesses invited by the prosecution to give evidence have since gone to various municipal courts in Serbia to sign statements saying that they are being harassed by prosecutors, said Kandic.



These statements – in which witnesses apparently allege that prosecution investigators used threats and blackmail to force them to testify against Seselj – have been published by the Radicals in their party literature.



SRS members, including Seselj himself in open court, have also accused prosecutors of intimidating witnesses.



“They [the witnesses] were almost all intimidated with all kinds of human rights violations by the ICTY,” Dragan Todorovic, SRS vice president, told IWPR.



The office of the prosecutor, OTP, at the tribunal declined to comment on how it was addressing these allegations but denied any mistreatment of witnesses.



"The office of the prosecutor rejects all claims by witnesses that they were threatened, blackmailed or otherwise intimidated by investigators," said OTP spokesperson Olga Kavran.



Meanwhile, Todorovic denied allegations that SRS members pressured prosecution witnesses not to testify in Seselj’s trial. “That’s totally not the truth,” he said.



IWPR asked Todorovic to comment further on these allegations but he declined to do so. IWPR also contacted members of Seselj's legal team in Belgrade but they chose not to address the allegations.



POLITICS, NOT LAW



Rights groups are also concerned that Seselj, who is representing himself in the trial, may be using privileges granted to him in leading his own defence – such as unmonitored phone calls to Belgrade – to exert political influence in Serbia.



This, they argue, puts off prosecution witnesses, as they feel Seselj is still able to wield significance influence over his party and its activities in Serbia, leaving them vulnerable.



“This is something where good enquiry should be made – how those witnesses changed their testimony, or their will to testify against Seselj, now they’re testifying in his favour,” Milan Atonijevic, executive director of the Yugoslav Law Committee, told IWPR.



Seselj’s unmonitored calls to his legal team in Belgrade are permitted on the understanding they are related to his defence, but observers claim that the accused is using them to further his political goals



“[Any phone calls] should be used according to the rules of the court for preparing his defence and other legal matters, but, unfortunately, all the communication is used for political purposes,” claimed Atonijevic.



Although this privilege can be revoked if the tribunal registrar believes it is being abused, commentators say it is difficult to stop Seselj using his calls to contact political colleagues.



“As a practical matter, it’s really impossible because part of self-representation is to allow confidentiality in terms of devising and strategising about the defence and that could include phone calls to political officials or others in Serbia,” said Param Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch.



Antonijevic said that once such communication was allowed, monitoring it to prevent political conversations was impossible.



“You can allow him to have communication or completely ban the communication,” he said. “You cannot always be a watchdog of his statements.”



Public statements and detention unit visits by SRS members suggest Seselj is still very much involved in running his party.



“In crucial moments, the leadership of the Radical Party is flying to The Hague to get an opinion. We cannot [prove this] because we don’t have transcripts of their talks, we can just guess what happened in the cell,” said Antonijevic.



Throughout his trial, Seselj has also used his court appearances to air his political views.



In the run-up to the recent Serbian elections, he voiced his opposition to pro-European parties, telling the court – and people watching over the internet or on Serbian television – that the European Union was made up of “Serbian enemies…from all quarters of the globe”.



Seselj has also praised ex-special forces officer Zvezdan Jovanovic, who was convicted of assassinating the former Serbian president Zoran Djindjic in Belgrade in March 2003.



“All the messages given in front of the court are more for Serbia and the public than for the judicial process and the trial itself,” said Antonijevic.



Tribunal rules do not ban those in detention engaging in any sort of political activity.



“There is no rule that specifically prohibits political activism,” tribunal spokesperson Nerma Jelacic told IWPR. “Our rules are in line with international conventions on human rights and the UN charter and in this specific case also in line with the domestic jurisdiction.”



However, commentators have expressed concern that Seselj’s continued involvement with Serbian politics could have led to witnesses refusing to testify against him.



“It’s certainly not in the tribunal’s benefit and certainly not in the benefit of the witnesses to allow unbridled political activism by detainees,” said Singh, referring to Kandic’s allegations about witness intimidation.



HUNGER STRIKE



Some analysts say that the tribunal appeals chamber’s decision to grant him the right to self-representation in December 2006 has emboldened Seselj to continue with political activities – both inside the courtroom and from his cell.



Following a hunger strike by the accused, the appeals chamber overturned a trial chamber ruling that a lawyer should be appointed to represent him. The original trial chamber decision to stop him representing himself cited his “intimidation of, and slanderous comments about, witnesses”.



Jelacic stressed that according to the tribunal statute, every defendant has the right to self-representation and it is up to tribunal judges to decide whether or not to grant it.



However, Goran Sluiter, professor of law at Amsterdam University, suggested that the decision to allow Seselj to defend himself had caused problems.



“[Seselj] has a very powerful position because he went on hunger strike and, basically, got what he wanted,” said Sluiter.



“I think there’s the fear that he will [go on hunger strike] again if there’s an issue he is not pleased with, so they just don’t know how to handle him.”



While allegations about witness intimidation remain unproven, Sluiter feels that Seselj’s previous handling of the tribunal and his unrestricted communication do not help the situation.



“There is danger that knowing his position and that his right to self-representation is almost sacred, he feels safe maybe to engage in these type of activities [intimidation of witnesses],” said Sluiter.



“If there is abuse… maybe this self-representation should be revoked and counsel should be assigned.”



But he said he was not optimistic that the tribunal would take such a step.



“Apparently, nobody has the courage to go down that road again. It seems that his self-representation is now absolute and unconditional,” continued Sluiter.



Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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