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

Tribunal Extends Monitoring of Seselj's Phone Calls

His defence lawyer says ban on privileged communication denies him his right to a fair trial.
By Simon Jennings
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal this week extended monitoring of phone calls between Serbian nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj and his lawyers over fears that he may have used them to arrange the intimidation of witnesses.

According to Nerma Jelacic, spokeswoman for the tribunal, registrar Hans Holthuis ruled that there are “reasonable grounds for believing that privileged communication… may have been used to facilitate interference with or intimidation of witnesses”.

Seselj, who is charged with crimes against humanity in Croatia and Serbia between 1991 and 1993, is representing himself during his trial but had enjoyed privileged communication from the detention unit in The Hague with his legal support team in Serbia.

Tribunal rules allowed him to have one telephone number which he could call from the detention unit on a confidential basis. According to his legal team in Belgrade, the number used was that of his legal adviser, Slavko Jerkovic.

But human rights groups feared the phone calls were being used to arrange the intimidation of witnesses. Natasa Kandic, executive director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, told IWPR in June she feared prosecution witnesses were being pressured by members of Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party, SRS, into withdrawing their evidence in the trial and even switching to testify in Seselj’s defence.

On September 29, Holthuis ruled that Seselj was abusing his confidential telephone calls and ordered that all his communication from the unit be monitored for a period of 30 days.

That monitoring was extended for a further 30 days on October 29 as Holthuis felt that “there has been no substantial change in the circumstances since the decision was first made on 29 September”, Jelacic told IWPR.

Zoran Krasic, one of Seselj’s defence lawyers in Belgrade, told IWPR that the ban on Seselj’s privileged communication denied him his right to a fair trial.

“Privileged communication actually exists as a channel to prepare [a] defence in the best possible way without [the knowledge of] either the prosecution or anyone else,” he said.

According to judges in Seselj’s trial, prosecutors have filed a confidential motion to bring contempt of court charges against him for revealing the names of protected witnesses and threatening them.

The witnesses’ names have allegedly been revealed in his book, The Hrtkovci Affair, which Seselj himself says was assembled on his orders while he has been in detention in The Hague.

“That book was compiled absolutely pursuant to my strict instructions, instructions given from The Hague here to my associates, and everything that that book contains, I stand by the contents,” Seselj told judges in court last week. “My associates were just my extended arm so to speak.”

The office of the prosecutor was unable to comment on the motion to charge Seselj with contempt as it is confidential, however the accused has publicly denied the accusations.

“I have never intimidated a single witness. I have never exerted any pressure or brought coercion to bear against witnesses,” he told judges in court.

Seselj’s legal advisers in Belgrade have also denied that either they or members of the SRS, which Seselj still heads, have interfered with witnesses in the trial.

Krasic, a co-founder of the SRS, denied “that there was any intimidation of witnesses either from the defence or from [the] Serbian Radical Party side”.

“There is no logical ground for this,” Krasic told IWPR. “Why would anyone do such a serious thing to intimidate witnesses because that would damage the difficult situation of a detainee such as Dr Vojislav Seselj?”

Krasic questions the legality of bringing contempt of court charges against Seselj. He said “it is totally impossible to lead two parallel cases against one accused, for war crimes and contempt of proceedings” because the tribunal’s rules and statute do not allow prosecutors to do so.

However, Jelacic said this was not the case.

“There is nothing in the tribunal’s rules that explicitly prohibits these contempt of court indictments from being raised,” she said.

According to Seselj’s statements in court, and confirmed by Krasic, the accused no longer discusses his case with his advisers in Belgrade because he cannot do so confidentially. However, Krasic says this has not affected the strength of his defence.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

More IWPR's Global Voices