Serbian ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj went on trial yesterday at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal for allegedly taking part in a wide-ranging criminal plot to drive non-Serbs out of large parts of Bosnia and Croatia using a regime of terror that included murder, torture and rape.
Seselj, a 52-year-old former political science lecturer in Sarajevo, is one of the most senior political figures in tribunal custody and his trial marks another attempt by the UN court to prosecute those it considers most responsible for the brutal wars that tore Yugoslavia apart.
He is charged with recruiting notorious Serb paramilitary forces, fanning ethnic tensions with hate-laced nationalistic speeches and planning the takeover of towns in Croatia and Bosnia as part of a criminal plot -- involving other political and military leaders including former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic -- to drive non-Serbs out of regions he considered part of a Greater Serbia.
Among atrocities committed by forces taking part in the alleged criminal plot were "the extermination or murder of many Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians including women, children and the elderly," Seselj's indictment said.
With most-wanted suspects former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief General Ratko Mladic still on the run and the Security Council pressing the tribunal to complete all trials by the end of 2008, it could be one of the last.
Seselj is a close associate of Milosevic, who died in tribunal custody in March before his four-year genocide trial could be completed, and leader of the Radical Party, which has the most lawmakers in Serbia's parliament.
In Belgrade, Radical Party official Aleksandar Vucic said on Saturday that if the trial went ahead yesterday without Seselj, Seselj would file another demand to the tribunal to have all the hearings so far annulled.
Seselj claimed at a pretrial hearing last week that his voice was too weak for him to appear in court and it was not clear if he planned to attend court yesterday.
Seselj intends to continue the hunger strike he began 15 days ago, even if he is forced to take an intravenous drip, Vucic said.
Milosevic's aborted trial led to a storm of criticism that the court's cases take too long. As a result, judges ordered Seselj's original 14-count indictment trimmed to nine counts and have also warned Seselj against disrupting his case as he conducts his own defense.
Seselj surrendered voluntarily in Feb. 2003 declaring his innocence and vowing to turn the proceedings against him into a circus.
If convicted, Seselj will face a maximum possible sentence of life imprisonment.