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

Seselj Trial Starts Without Him

Leader of the Serbian Radical Party has been hospitalised after a three-week hunger strike seriously endangered his health.
By Katherine Boyle
The trial of Serbian ultra-nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj began this week without the accused, who has been hospitalised after being on a hunger strike for approximately three weeks.

Seselj’s trial began on November 27, but the defendant chose not to attend. On November 29, he was admitted to the prison hospital in Scheveningen, said Refik Hodzic, a spokesman for the Hague tribunal. Hodzic said the court was forced to transfer Seselj to hospital because his continuous refusal to eat had endangered his health.

Hodzic also noted that the tribunal would be forced to intervene if Seselj’s condition becomes life-threatening. This position appears to contradict the World Medical Association and the United Nation’s policy regarding hunger strikers, which states that physicians should not force-feed any detainee who has expressly rejected such treatment.

Hodzic refused to comment on this latter point, but said the tribunal's position was clear.

"We will intervene on the basis of medical necessity to protect Seselj's health and life. This is in line with the UN policy, because in his contacts with the tribunal's staff and doctors, Seselj has repeatedly demonstrated his desire to live," he said.

According to his political associates in the SRS, Seselj has said he will maintain his hunger strike until his stand-by defence counsel is removed; he is able to continue representing himself; he receives all court orders and documents in Serbian and his wife is allowed to visit him.

However, in a press release issued on November 30, the tribunal stated that Seselj’s conditions for stopping the hunger strike have been various and changing, and have included demands such as having the tribunal approach a foreign state to have his bank accounts unfrozen.

The tribunal also noted that Seselj has refused to see a Dutch doctor, insisting instead upon a physician from a country such as France or Serbia. But when, as per his request, a French doctor arrived on November 30, Seselj refused to see him. Seselj has also failed to provide the name of a physician who would be acceptable to him, according to the tribunal.

In its statement, the tribunal said it has invited the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international experts to visit Seselj, and has kept government officials and diplomats from the Netherlands and Serbia informed of his condition.

Seselj continues to enjoy significant support in Serbia, and was last week named head of the SRS’s list of candidates for the January elections, which guarantees him a seat in parliament, irrespective of his detention in The Hague.

Ljubica Gojgic, the Hague correspondent for Belgrade Television B92, told IWPR she believes Seselj’s reasons for the hunger strike are “predominantly political” and “directly related to the election campaign in Serbia”.

“Interestingly, his hunger strike started just a few hours after Serbian president [Boris] Tadic set a date for extraordinary parliamentary elections,” she noted. “Mr Seselj came to the Hague to make a show. He believed The Hague judges would have to accept his behaviour just like his political opponents in Serbia...He probably thought such behaviour would make him popular in Serbia.”

In Seselj’s absence from the trial, Presiding Judge Alphons Orie activated stand-by defence counsel David Hooper to speak on his behalf, noting that the “self-induced weak physical condition” of the accused was no reason to delay the trial. He also said Seselj should be able to follow the trial from the detention unit via video link.

On November 30, the tribunal named Seselj’s previous stand-by counsel Tjarda van der Spoel the accused’s new independent counsel.

In her opening statement at the start of Seselj’s trial this week, Prosecutor Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff said that during the 1990s Seselj had dredged up old grudges and wrongs in order to instil fear and hatred in the Serb people and to pit neighbour against neighbour.

She emphasised that Seselj’s intent was the extermination and forced removal of non-Serbs in order to create a “Greater Serbia”, maintaining that ethnic cleansing was not a consequence of the war but rather its goal.

Seselj is accused of participating in a joint criminal enterprise with other political and military leaders, including former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, in order to forcibly remove non-Serbs from parts of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina through persecution, murder, imprisonment and torture.

He is also charged with recruiting Serbian volunteers and inciting them to commit these crimes. Uertz-Retzlaff described these volunteers as the military wing of the SDS.

Uertz-Retzlaff said Seselj was directly tied to crimes including the massacre of some 260 non-Serbs at Vukovar and attacks on civilians in Sarajevo and Zagreb, relating the commission of these crimes to Seselj’s speeches and visits to the areas where they occurred.

She quoted many interviews and speeches Seselj gave during the 1990s, and cited a 1993 interview for B92 to demonstrate Seselj’s rationale regarding attacks on civilians.

“Why would I have a guilty conscience [about civilian deaths]?” Seselj was quoted as saying in that interview. “So many innocent Serbs suffered in this war, and I need to worry about those who belong to another, enemy people? In war, I above all worry about those who belong to my own people.”

Prosecutor Daniel Saxon stressed that Seselj’s speeches and statements caused acts of hatred and violence across the Balkans.

“This trial more than any other case before the tribunal is about the use of words, language and expression,” said Saxon. “This trial is about political speech used to poison the minds of men and women in order to further political goals.”

Seselj, continued Saxon, particularly inflamed Serb’s emotions against Croats and Muslims, souring relations that had been relatively good before 1990.

“To change that situation, to convince Serbs to carry out acts of violence and destruction, to carry out the purpose of the joint criminal enterprise, the propaganda used by the political elite had to be extreme, and so it was,” added Saxon. “This war, Your Honour, was fought with words in addition to arms.”

Hooper declined to make an opening statement for Seselj, noting that he hoped the accused would be able to make his own statement once he begins attending the trial. He also reminded the judges that, at this point in the trial, their prejudice should be for Seselj rather than against him.

“[Seselj] should be here, and it’s essential that he play as full a role in this, his trial, as he possibly can,” said Hooper. “After all, it’s the only trial he is probably going to get and he knows that.”

Hooper called Seselj “an intelligent and perceptive man” and “a brave man too”, adding that he hopes Seselj will be able to lay aside his exasperations with the court and confront his accusers.

“I cannot do that alone,” said Hooper.

The trial is expected to resume on December 6, when the prosecution will call its first witness.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


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