Theatrical Opening to Seselj Trial

After a delay of almost a year, trial reopens with defendant in bullish mood.

Theatrical Opening to Seselj Trial

After a delay of almost a year, trial reopens with defendant in bullish mood.

Saturday, 10 November, 2007
Fiery and confident, Serbian ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj took to the stage of the Hague tribunal this week, giving court observers the performance they had been waiting for since his voluntary surrender to the tribunal in February 2003.

“My adrenaline has been rising for five years and now is the day it comes out,” the president of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, told the court in a booming voice.

Flanked by two security guards, Seselj spent nearly four hours on November 8 trying to unravel the prosecution’s case.

“The indictment against me is lacking in seriousness,” he said, shaking his finger at prosecutors. “[It] is written in haste, by legally incapable people, not prone to thinking.”

Seselj, 53, is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, including persecution, extermination, murder and torture, committed in Croatia, Bosnia, and Vojvodina between 1991 and 1995.

He is accused of taking part in a joint criminal enterprise, along with the late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, with the aim of “the permanent forcible removal through the commission of crimes” of a majority of the non-Serb population from around one-third of the territory of Croatia, large areas of Bosnia and parts of Vojvodina in Serbia.

Seselj is further accused of participating in the recruitment, formation, financing, supply, support, and direction of Serb volunteers connected to his party, who were sent to the frontline during the conflicts. He also stands charged with making inflammatory speeches, during public events and visits to the volunteer units.

His is the first case since the Milosevic trial to focus on Serbia’s involvement in the atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia. The indictment against him alleges that tens of thousands of innocent victims were slaughtered during these campaigns.

Prosecutors charge that Seselj employed propaganda techniques and hate speech to drum up the support of Serbs in uprooting non-Serbs to create a homogenous territory.

This week, prosecutor Christine Dahl’s opening statement reduced many observers in the court’s public gallery to tears, as she described the heartbreaking journey of a Bosniak mother whose family fell under the control of White Eagles paramilitaries allegedly under Seselj’s command.

“She made her [older] son urinate in a pan and fed it to her infant to prevent dehydration. Her breasts had dried up,” she said.

Dahl continued by depicting the harsh conditions other women and children were subjected to at the hands of paramilitaries, “They slept in a basement of a heating factory…were kept in a dark room with no toilets. They lasted four days and for nights with no food or water.

“He is not apologetic even today,” Dahl said of Seselj, characterising him as a master politician, whose “chauvinistic, belligerent and poisonous” leadership was ultimately responsible for the campaigns to drive out non-Serbs and the murders that ensued.

“In a systematic way, Bosnian Serbs carried out ethnic cleansing,” she said. “And Seselj is responsible for these crimes.”

Laughter was the defendant’s only response to her words.

“He is the man who gave the world ethnic cleansing,” said Dahl.

Firing back, Seselj rejected that label and the charges against him, while blasting the court for being part of a western-driven anti-Serb conspiracy.

“I’m an opponent of the European Union and a great enemy of NATO,” he said. “That is why I’m being tried in the first place. I am being tried because of my nationalist ideology and my speeches and I am proud of that.”

While Seselj admitted this week that crimes were committed during the Balkan wars, he denied having had a hand in them, distancing himself from responsibility, while shifting the blame on other parties.

“I seem to be held responsible for everyone. It’s the Croats and the Muslims in Bosnia who started killing the Serbs. That is what caused this bloodshed!” he said.

In a final storm of words this week, Seselj closed by daring the court to give him the harshest possible sentence so that his ideology would be immortalised, adding that he only regretted the tribunal’s inability to pass a death sentence.

“So that proudly, with dignity, upright like my friend Saddam Hussein I could put the final seal on my ideology…I have lived long enough, but I want immortality for my ideology,” he said.

“I am especially grateful to the Hague tribunal for allowing me to suffer for my ideology. It cannot be uprooted from the Serbian people. It’s alive and will be for hundreds of years after my death. My life no longer matters.”

Presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti responded calmly that the tribunal would neither acquit nor convict Seselj based on an ideology, but rather on the basis of evidence and facts.

“You have before you three wholly independent judges,” he said. “What happened before this trial is one thing; this trial will be another.”

Seselj’s trial originally began a year ago, but it was put on hold after he staged a 28-day hunger strike in response to the court’s decision to deny him the right to choose his own defence counsel.

While Seselj eventually ended his hunger strike after being allowed the opportunity to defend himself, a restart of the trial was not possible until he fully recovered from the consequences of the strike.

The leader of his country’s largest political party, Seselj managed to lead the SRS’s list of contenders for Serbia’s election in January 2007 from detention. He remains a popular political figure in the party, and SRS members hope the trial will raise its profile in Serbia ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

The case will resume on December 11, when the court is expected to hear from the prosecution’s first witness, Dr Anthony Oberschall, a sociology professor from the University of North Carolina.

The prosecution hopes the witness’s testimony will show that Seselj’s nationalistic propaganda techniques were used as a method of perpetuating violence by Serbs against non-Serbs.

Sonia Nezamzadeh is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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