Seselj Trial Hears Why Witness Switched Sides

Former prosecution witness says he chose to appear for the defence because he felt intimidated.

Seselj Trial Hears Why Witness Switched Sides

Former prosecution witness says he chose to appear for the defence because he felt intimidated.

Judges at the Hague tribunal subpoenaed a witness last week in the war crimes case against Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, to explain why he switched from being a prosecution to a defence witness in 2007.

Zoran Rankic, former deputy head of the SRS War Staff, told judges that he decided to become a defence witness after prosecutors had "put pressure" on his family

Rankic said that he was told if he did not cooperate with the prosecution, he would be delivered to Bosnia and put on trial for war crimes. He gave untruthful statements in order to "save [his] hide", Rankic said.

"I personally know I did not participate in any war crimes. I never tried to cover up a war crime," Rankic said. "I was perplexed, I was afraid."

Seselj, who is representing himself at the tribunal, is accused of responsibility for crimes committed against Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb populations in regions throughout Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia between 1991 and 1993.

According to the indictment, Seselj was part of a joint criminal enterprise that planned, ordered, committed or aided in the planning of persecutions of non-Serb civilian populations in order to create a Serb-dominated state.

Seselj made inflammatory speeches in the media, the indictment says, and encouraged the creation of a homogenous "Greater Serbia" by violence, thereby participating in war propaganda and the incitement of hatred towards non-Serb people.

In 2003, Rankic was interviewed by investigators - his remarks forming a written statement, signed by both Rankic and his interpreter, prosecutor Lisa Biersay said.

Biersay questioned Rankic about his contact with Hague investigators and prosecutors. "Were you beaten by these investigators?" Biersay asked.

"No," Rankic said.

"Were any of the investigators armed?" she asked.

"Not that I noticed," he said.

Biersay asked if the witness had reported his allegations of prosecution threats to the police.

"This is preposterous. This is funny," Rankic said. "For me to report an international organisation to the Serbian police?"

Rankic said that he was waiting to come to the tribunal and report the alleged threats in court.

Biersay noted that Rankic met investigators and prosecution lawyers in June 2006 to finalise a second statement for his testimony as a prosecution witness.

"The process... was not completed, because you told them and reported that you had been approached by a group in Belgrade that told you 'not to play with your life'," Biersay said.

"That's a fabrication," Rankic responded.

"Didn't you also tell them your son answered the phone and someone threatened to blow you up?" Biersay asked.

"I did say that but it has nothing to do with the SRS but with an idiot, a protected witness here," Rankic said.

Rankic told judges that he eventually contacted the SRS and told them "I could no longer be in touch with" prosecutors, drafting his first statement for the defence in August 2007.

Seselj began his cross-examination by referring to Rankic's claim in his prosecution statement from 2003 that Seselj never told SRS volunteers to familiarise themselves with the Geneva conventions.

"I denied this yesterday," Rankic said. "Sometimes I gave them a lecture on how they should conduct themselves on the ground."

"You said I said, 'Be heroes, fight for 'Greater Serbia'," Seselj said. "Is that true?"

"Of course not," Rankic said.

"You said I was a lunatic?" Seselj said.

"I never said that," the witness responded.

"They included it in your statement against your will," Seselj concluded. "Did we ever send a criminal as our own volunteer knowing they were bent on crime? Do you know of a single incident of those volunteers committing a crime on the frontline?"

"I know of no such case," Rankic responded.

"This incriminating evidence against Seselj... you signed a whole series of statements," Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti pointed out. "Why did you sign these after having, as is normal, read the statements?"

"I didn't know what my rights were," Rankic said. "I now know I didn't have to give any statements to the [prosecution]... I did not read anything. I just wanted to be out of there."

Seselj continued referencing Rankic's statement, in which he told investigators that Seselj had ordered volunteers who had allegedly committed crimes during the war to other locations in Bosnia, and did nothing to prevent further criminal behaviour.

"This is the fabrication they put together," Seselj said. "You find this funny?"

"Yes," Rankic replied.

Seselj addressed Rankic's claims in his statement that the accused had attacked and insulted other religious groups.

"Could a man of my educational attainment call Muslims pagans when Islam is a monotheistic religion?" Seselj asked.

"No, I don't think so," Rankic replied.

The trial has been adjourned until further notice.

Julia Hawes is an IWPR contributor.

Support our journalists