Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Another Serb uses crimes trial as personal platform

BELLIGERENT Vojislav Seselj might win top prize for infuriating the court that is prosecuting the 1990s' Balkan war crimes


Slobodan Milosevic is being upstaged. For the past two years, the former Yugoslav president has noisily challenged the international tribunal that is trying him for war crimes, by pontificating, denigrating his judges and dismissing his trial as a mere anti-Serb farce.

But now a fellow Serb, the ultranationalist politician and warlord Vojislav Seselj, is outdoing Milosevic in insolence. Taken together, their behavior illustrates some of the difficulties this court faces.

Frustratingly slow at times, it deals with Croat, Muslim and Serbian defendants accused of atrocities in the 1990s wars that broke up Yugoslavia. Seselj, who turned himself in a year ago, has sneered that the UN court is just an "American tool against Serbs," which he "will blast to pieces."

Known in Serbia for his rabble-rousing speeches and foul language, he has now brought these habits to the Hague. He has equated one judge with the Nazis and requested that all three of his judges be disqualified. He has accused the tribunal registrar of financial crimes, fired off motions that amount to insulting diatribes and managed to outwit his prison guards -- and his trial has not even begun.

Some court officials wonder how a proper and fair trial of such an obstructionist defendant can be conducted.

"Other accused have their ways of being difficult," said Jim Landale, the tribunal spokesman, "but we have not seen such extreme verbal assaults before."

Like Milosevic, Seselj, 49, is conducting his own defense, which allows him to hold the floor in court, even now at preparatory hearings for the trial that may begin later this year.

Seselj, a former Sarajevo University lecturer who founded an ultranationalist political party and his own armed militia, faces charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s. His indictment states that he ordered persecutions, plunder and killings, and that he is accountable for the atrocities perpetrated by his gang, known as Seselj's Men. Prosecutors and witnesses contend that he often directed the fighters as they terrorized, robbed and killed non-Serbian civilians.

Seselj's latest move that aggravated court officials came in December, when he managed to use the jail telephone to campaign for his Radical Party in the parliamentary elections of Serbia. Milosevic did the same for his Socialist Party. When the tribunal discovered they were broadcasting on Belgrade radio, it imposed a temporary ban on all calls except to family and lawyers.

Milosevic reportedly respected the ban, a court official said, but Seselj gave another interview on Dec. 25 from a public phone near his cell. He told his listeners in Belgrade that he was able to trick his guards because "the fools are all busy celebrating Christmas."

Seselj's party won almost 28 percent of the vote, making it the largest political force in the country. He tried to deliver a victory speech by telephone until his guards cut him off.

The telephone episode points up the challenge of trying to stop these two seasoned politicians from exercising their influence from their cells.

Court officials are even more concerned about the plans of the two to use their trials as political platforms. Milosevic, for example, is entitled to hold the floor for many months once his defense begins in May.

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