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12 Jan, 2010 15:07

Case of accused Serbian war criminal puts Hague on trial

Vojslav Seselj is one of those freedom fighters who always ends up behind bars. First, he was sent to prison by communists. Then, by his former ally-turned-political-opponent Slobodan Milosevic.

Now, he’s awaiting a verdict from the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia – waiting for seven years with no end yet in sight.

Like Milosevic, Seselj is accused of crimes against humanity, and like with the former president of Serbia, his chances of hearing a sentence are shrinking year after year. Foul-mouthed and volatile, Seselj is a Serbian politician who’s been never short on strong words in support of Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity.

On one occasion in 1991, shortly before Serbia went to war against Slovenia and Croatia in an attempt to stop their secession from Yugoslavia, Seselj said his paramilitary forces would not kill Croats with knives, but rather – would gouge out their eyes with rusty spoons so that they would die of tetanus. Seselj later claimed it was nothing more than sarcasm but two decades later he stands accused of putting his hands where his mouth was.

Yet, as easy a target as he may seem, Seselj is hard to get. He turned himself in in February 2003 after the ICTY indicted him on eight counts of crimes against humanity yet none of these charges has been proven in court. Seselj had spent more than four years in detention before a trial against him even began and, three months later, just seven hours before the prosecution’s time ran out, the Seselj case was suspended for another 11 months.

The prosecutors alleged that witnesses were being intimidated by the defendant’s supporters, while Siselj himself claimed that the true motive of the prosecutors was that they were losing their case.

”It is only true that the witnesses were mistreated, but the ones who mistreated them were the prosecutors of the ICTY and their allies and their assistants here in Belgrade. There are many, many cases when the witnesses were imposed to accuse Doctor Vojslav Seselj, although they all knew that there was no evidence for that,” Mladen Obradovic, a representative of Serbian nationalist movement Obraz told RT.

As the trial gets underway again, Seselj seems more confident than ever that all the charges against him will be dropped. Yet, many observers in Russia and Serbia doubt that his exoneration is possible.

“Ever since the Hague Tribunal was established, the main guilt has been put on the Serbs – that’s why so many Serbs are in the Hague now, that’s why the trials of our men receive such media attention, because they’re presented as guilty from the start by those countries with wrong politics who provoked war in our country,” Goran Petronijevic, a lawyer who represents former Bosnian Serb commander Radovan Karadzic at the ICTY told RT. “All over the world people are innocent until proven guilty, but in Hague everybody is innocent until they’re a Serb.”

According to the court’s statistics, three-quarters of indictees of the ICTY have been Serbs or Montenegrins, while there have been far fewer indictments resulting from crimes committed against Serbs. Critics of the tribunal suggest the data reflects the court’s ethnic bias, while the tribunal's defenders see this as indicative of the actual proportion of crimes committed.

Established in 1993, the ICTY has been long criticized in Moscow as ineffective, costly and politically motivated. Observers in Moscow allege the tribunal exacerbates tensions rather than promoting reconciliation and undermines the integrity of the court system. Siselj’s 7-year-long quest for justice serves as a prime example. When the prosecution petitioned to adjourn the trial last February, one of the three judges voted against the suspension stating that it was “unfair to interrupt the trial of someone who has spent almost six years in detention.”

“The tribunal has long discredited itself and Siselj’s case is just one more proof of that. Even Carla del Ponte admitted that the case against him was politically motivated,” Aslan Abashidze, a Georgian politician told RT. In Del Ponte's book, former ICTY chief prosecutor wrote that the new Serbian leadership asked her to “take Siselj away and keep him for a long time.”

“Del Ponte’s confessions, as well as the lengths and the bias of the ICTY trials, create a bad example for the practice of ad hoc tribunals,” Abashidze said. “Because of it, it’s becoming more and more difficult to bring war criminals to justice.”

Oksana Boyko, RT