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

Seselj Pleads Not Guilty to Contempt

He also informed the court of his intention to represent himself in the proceedings.
By Simon Jennings
Serbian ultra-nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj this week pleaded not guilty to a contempt of court charge brought against him for allegedly disclosing the identity of protected witnesses.

The Serbian ultra-nationalist politician – who has been trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in The Hague since November 2007 – was in the dock again on March 6 to answer the new charge, which was confirmed by judges on January 21.

“I am going to enter a plea straight away and it is ‘not guilty’,” Seselj told Australian judge Kevin Parker, waiving his right to wait a further 30 days before answering the charge.

Seselj is charged with revealing in a book confidential information about the identity of three protected witnesses testifying in his war crimes trial.

If convicted, he could face a maximum of seven years in jail, a 100,000 euro fine, or both, on top of any sentence handed down in the war crimes case.

According to the new indictment against him, Seselj is charged with “knowingly and willfully interfering with the administration of justice by disclosing confidential information in violation of orders granting protective measures”.

Two of the witnesses were granted pseudonyms, and image and voice distortion were used during their testimony at the court, said the indictment.

Prosecutors contend that Seselj’s name appears as the author on the cover of the book – the name of which has not been disclosed – and that he also confirmed in court that he was the author of the book.

They also allege that the book “contains numerous references to three [protected] witnesses… including their real names, occupations and places of residence, which enable the identification of these witnesses”.

This week, Seselj appeared in court without legal representation, as has been his strategy throughout his war crimes trial.

He informed the court that he would represent himself during the contempt proceedings.

“I fully intend to represent myself and not only today, Judge,” Seselj told Judge Parker.

The defendant used this first court appearance on the contempt charge to object to the confidential aspects of the indictment, asking Judge Parker to read the full charge, including the name of the book.

“Since I am being tried for [writing] this book, the public ought to know [its] exact title,” he said.

“You can only try me on the basis of a public indictment and not on the basis of a secret and confidential indictment.”

Judge Parker informed the defendant that only a redacted version of the indictment could be read out in open court.

“The reason for the confidentiality is that there is a trial ongoing involving you, in which witnesses and other material is of concern. For that reason, the confidentiality order has been made,” he explained, referring to the war crimes proceedings against Seselj.

Judges have suspended hearings in the war crimes case following allegations by the prosecution that witnesses were being intimidated.

“We believe, Your Honours, that there is clear evidence that the proceedings are being interfered with and the integrity of the proceedings is being compromised,” Prosecutor Daryl Mundis told judges on January 15.

Following Seselj’s not guilty plea in the contempt case, Judge Parker informed him of his rights as a defendant, particularly in relation to any interview that Canadian prosecutor Bruce MacFarlane may conduct with him.

However, Seselj objected to taking part in any such interview.

“As far as talking to the prosecutor is concerned, of course, the prosecutor has the right to issue an order for the [detention unit] guards to bring me in for an interview, but it is up to me whether I talk to him or not and I consider that I have nothing to discuss with the prosecutor,” Seselj told the court.

“Anything we need to do can be done in the courtroom.”

As allowed for by court rules, judges appointed MacFarlane as an amicus curiae – or ‘friend of the court’ – to bring the contempt case against Seselj. The proceedings will be heard by three different judges from those sitting on the war crimes case.

Seselj also asked the judge to allow him during subsequent proceedings to sit at the bench usually reserved for lawyers, rather than in the dock, in the usual manner of a defendant.

“Because I am representing myself, Judge, I require that I be allowed to sit in the first row so that I can be in the court room visually and on a par in the courtroom with the other side, that is to say the prosecutor,” he said.

But Judge Parker made no guarantees.

“As to where you sit in the courtroom, [this] is a matter according to the ordinary practice of this tribunal and subject to any order that might be made as the matter progresses, the ordinary procedure of the tribunal will apply.”

Judge Parker thanked Seselj for his timely plea and said he looked forward to arranging a start date for the trial.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

More IWPR's Global Voices