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Seselj Protest Over

The leader of the Serbian Radical Party agrees to stop hunger strike after appeals chamber ruling.
By Katherine Boyle
Serbian ultra-nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj ended his hunger strike on December 8 after the appeals chamber granted him the right to represent himself.

Seselj said the chamber’s decision to remove his standby counsel, as well the tribunal registry’s commitment to fulfilling many of his other requests, had convinced him to end the protest, according to an ICTY press release.

The tribunal’s doctor will examine Seselj immediately to determine his medical condition and decide what must be done to safeguard his health.

In its decision, the appeals chamber noted that the trial chamber had not established that Seselj’s behaviour warranted the imposition of stand-by counsel, and had not given him a chance to prove that he could comply with the tribunal’s rules of procedure and evidence.

Seselj, known for his volatile and obscene outbursts in court, has had the right to self-defense taken away by the trial chamber and re-granted by the appeals chamber in the past.

The latter clearly noted, however, that the decision to remove Seselj’s stand-by defense counsel should in no way be construed as “rewarding” his behaviour during the hunger strike.

The chamber also stated that if, in the future, the trial chamber is fully convinced that Seselj’s behaviour is obstructionist, he must be allowed to choose his own standby counsel from a list provided by the tribunal.

Earlier in the week, the trial chamber had ordered that Dutch authorities ensure that Seselj be force-fed should his condition worsen. The move came after a team of doctors said that if his hunger strike continued, he could die within the next two weeks.

During the protest, which began November 11, Seselj lost at least 25 kilogrammes.

He was examined by the Serbian, Russian and French doctors on December 6 after refusing to be seen by a Dutch physician.

Dr Patrick Barriot from France had called Seselj’s medical condition “critical” and said the doctors were “very worried”.

Dr Momcilo Babic, of Belgrade, described Seselj as being in “good spirits”, but said his medical condition was very bad and “he could die at any moment”.

“Seselj insists on his human rights,” said a prescient Babic, inferring that the hunger strike would end if Seselj were granted the right to represent himself.

All three doctors said Seselj was lucid and well-aware of the possible consequences of his protest, which sparked a controversy about the practice of force-feeding detainees.

Although the UN and World Medical Association policies prohibit the force-feeding of hunger strikers who reject the procedure, tribunal spokesman Refik Hodzic stated that the tribunal would have been compelled to intervene if Seselj’s condition became life-threatening.

Despite the fact that Seselj has publicly refused to be force-fed, Hodzic said there was “space for serious doubts” as to whether Seselj ever actually intended to carry out the hunger strike and cause his own death.

“In [Seselj’s] contact with medical and tribunal staff, he has clearly demonstrated a will to live,” said Hodzic. “He has previously said that should he lose consciousness it is up to the management of the detention unit to take the appropriate action.”

Hodzic said based on these facts intervention would not have contradicted UN policy.

After meeting with the President of Serbia’s National Hague Cooperation Council Rasim Ljajic this week, tribunal president Fausto Pocar announced that the tribunal would allow such intervention to take place at a civilian hospital in Holland should the need arise.

The Dutch justice ministry declined to comment on the tribunal’s order.

A similar controversy erupted in Holland 2002 when the then justice minister Piet Hein Donner stated that Dutch law allows the force-feeding of detainees after the man charged with murdering the politician Pim Fortuyn went on a hunger strike.

Donner asserted that the detainee’s wishes were not the only factor that should be taken into consideration during a hunger strike. He noted that the government also had to consider the health and safety of the detainee as well as an inviolate judicial process.

Donner’s statement was widely supported by politicians, but the Dutch medical community rejected the idea of force-feeding a patient who was competent and refused food, according to the British Medical Journal.

However, the issue never came to a head, as the suspect ended his hunger strike once the changes in conditions he asked for had been met.

This week, Seselj had asked that the appeals chamber review correspondence between his legal advisors and the court when it determined whether the trial chamber incorrectly revoked his right to self-defense.

Some saw this development as a sign that Seselj’s protest, like the suspect in Fortuyn’s assassination, would end voluntarily.

The leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, Seselj is on trial for planning and inciting the extermination and murder, persecution, deportation and forcible transfer of non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia between 1991 and 1995.

Seselj stated various demands he said must be met before he would end his protest. These requests included that the tribunal approach a foreign state in order to unfreeze his bank account in that country; and that the trial chamber judges in his case be replaced.

In recent submissions to the court, Seselj wrote that there has been a “brutal violation” of his “protected and guaranteed rights” due to judicial bias, and he will not be able to have a fair trial with the current trial chamber judges. He has also asked that any court decisions made in his absence, since November 22, be annulled.

Additionally, Seselj has demanded that his wife, Jadranka, be allowed to visit him; that he retain the right to represent himself; that all court documents and orders be translated into Serbian for him; that he be allowed to submit court documents longer than 800 words; and that his stand-by defense counsel be removed.

However, the tribunal noted that the court is the proper place for him to address these concerns, describing the hunger strike as a “non-legal avenue” for the pursuit of these demands. The tribunal has also publicly stated that it is not their role to fulfill all of Seselj’s demands, such as the unfreezing of his assets.

Other requests, such as the spousal visits, have been granted, although Seselj recently would not see either family or close friends. He had previously been prohibited from seeing his wife in private after she reportedly relayed confidential information about trial proceedings to his associates in the SRS.

“The prosecution had demanded audio monitoring of Seselj’s visits because he discovered the names of eight protected witnesses and gave instructions on how to terrorize them,” said Aleksandra Milenov, representative for the Hague tribunal in Serbia at a press conference held in Belgrade this week, adding that the restriction had only been valid for one month and was no longer in effect.

The Serbian government said in a statement this week that a “new tragic event at the Hague tribunal would be absolutely unacceptable”, and warned that the tribunal should accede Seselj’s requests.

Seselj’s hunger strike coincided with campaigning for the Serbian parliamentary elections, which will take place on January 21, prompting speculation that it was at least partially politically motivated.

Because Seselj has been indicted but not convicted, under Serbian law, he is still able to run in the elections. The SRS is currently the largest party in parliament with approximately a third of the seats, and Seselj is their leading candidate.

Seselj’s SRS associates and his wife had stated that he would fast to the death if his “legitimate” requests were not granted.

Seselj still enjoys significant support in Serbia, and his protest drew even more attention to Serbian ultra-nationalists’ cause. On December 2, thousands of Serbs protested his imprisonment outside the US embassy in Belgrade, condemning the US and the tribunal for alleged anti-Serb bias.

In their order to the Dutch authorities, the trial chamber wrote that they were “primarily and deeply concerned about the impact of [Seselj’s] hunger strike on his health and welfare”.

But they said they were also troubled by the impact the hunger strike may have on the judicial process.

Seselj’s trial essentially ground to a halt during the protest, and the Serbian ambassador to the Netherlands had asked that Seselj be returned to Belgrade to be hospitalised.

Though the move was unlikely, the situation during the protest was also untenable. Seselj’s doctors had warned that he could begin experiencing heart arrhythmia at any moment.

Although he has agreed to resume eating, Seselj is still in very weak condition. His trial will not resume until medical staff determine that he is fully healthy and able to represent himself.

Katherine Boyle is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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