Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Vojislav Seselj in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
In his closing arguments this week, Serbian nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj railed against the Hague tribunal, which he called an illegal “political instrument”, and claimed that western intelligence services were trying to assassinate him.
Since his surrender to the tribunal in 2003, Seselj has insisted on representing himself and has repeatedly vowed to “destroy” the tribunal. His trial has endured repeated delays since it officially began in November 2007, a full year after the original trial date was postponed because the accused went on hunger strike. He remains leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, based in Belgrade.
Seselj 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 the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.
Seselj has already been convicted twice on contempt charges for revealing the personal details of protected witnesses. A third contempt case is currently in the pretrial phase.
Last week, prosecutors asked that Seselj be sentenced to 28 years in prison for his “grave and heinous” wartime crimes (For more, see: Prosecutors Seek 28-Year Jail Term for Seselj.)
On March 14, Seselj called the prosecution’s closing arguments a “heap of stupid sentences and words”.
“This tribunal is not legal,” the accused said. “This tribunal is not set up to achieve justice and protect justice…it’s set up in order to be a tool in the hands of the [United Nations] security council. This is a political instrument.”
He also gave a detailed account of his recent health issues, including a hospitalisation on March 9 to repair a faulty cardiac defibrillator.
“I asked many doctors if they had ever heard of a [defibrillator] going berserk for no reason and causing electrical shocks. Each and every one told me they heard nothing ever about such an occurrence. That was attempted murder; I don’t think there can be another explanation,” the accused said.
He further alleged that American, British and French intelligence services planned to kill him “some time between closing arguments and rendering of the judgement. They won’t give up easily”.
He then turned on the tribunal judges and said they could be “prosecuted” for his “attempted murder”.
“You willingly agreed to take part in a JCE [joint criminal enterprise] whose aim is to remove me from the political life of Serbia,” he told the bench. “You believed that could be done through court proceedings without shedding blood. However, some members of your JCE, notably the American, British and French intelligence services, tried to assassinate me on the night between the 8th and 9th of March.”
“They might have been successful in that… you didn’t know they were planning this murder but you knew them, and you could have predicted that the killing of me by security services could have been a logical assumption,” Seselj said, referring to the third category of JCE that deals with “natural and foreseeable consequences” – which he himself is charged with.
“I like to describe things in the most absurd manner, because only in that manner can things become crystal clear,” the accused said, smiling.
As for the case against him, Seselj said that the prosecution used “false witnesses” whom it manipulated into giving false statements.
“The prosecution says I’m a ‘quasi-soldier’,” Seselj said, in reference to a remark prosecutors made during their closing statements. “This [court] is a quasi-institution. This is a quasi-prosecution.”
Seselj went on to declare his continuing commitment to Serbia.
“From the first day of the war, I placed myself at the service of my fatherland. I am still a soldier of my homeland. I am ready to die for my homeland Serbia,” he said. “You don’t understand what that means. You have a system of values based on decadence, based on pure individuals. We Serbs have an individual and collective conscience and we jealously guard both.”
He did acknowledge that “Muslims were the greatest victims” during the war, but insisted that Bosnia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in March 1992 was “completely illegal”.
His 1992 statement that there would be “rivers of blood” if Bosnia pursued independence– as cited by prosecutors – “wasn’t a threat, but a warning that turned out to be very true”, he said. “The same warning turned out to be accurate and fair in Croatia, too…. People suffered not because I had said rivers of blood would flow; it was because of those who knew that rivers of blood [would] flow when they declared independence.”
Turning to the French presiding judge, Jean Claude Antonetti, Seselj said to “imagine if the French people in Quebec were in danger, all of France would be up in arms. How could we Serbs be expected to stand by and watch if somebody is putting in jeopardy our brothers and sisters?”
At several points, Seselj said that he was “proud” of the role he played in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and claimed that his “reaction to every event was an appropriate one”.
He also rejected the charges that his “hate speech” in the village of Hrtkovci, Serbia in May 1992 – where he allegedly called for the expulsion of Croats and read out the names of individuals who should leave – amounted to persecution and deportation.
“My speech was not to the liking of many people. So what? I feel the same when I am listening to people from the [prosecution],” Seselj said.
He concluded by saying, “I am very satisfied with what I’ve achieved here…. Some day people will probably laugh at your judgement, and they will laugh even more at the indictment and closing argument of the prosecutor.
“What remains is the transcript of proceedings, this wonder of all wonders that has taken place in this courtroom, and because of that, this is worth living for.”
Seselj will continue his closing arguments next week.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight