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Originally published Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Serbian using The Hague as bully pulpit in war-crimes trial

Known for loutish outbursts and a fierce intellect, Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian politician on trial in The Hague for alleged war crimes, has often harangued judges and has taken pride in provoking prosecutors. As international criminal justice expands, courts are likely to face many more such defendants who have a flair for the dramatic and are used to getting their way.

The New York Times

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What, their biggest complaint is that Vojislav Sesej has a low opinion of their court? ... MORE

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — In the nine years since his arrival in The Hague, Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian politician, has often harangued judges and has taken pride in provoking and trying to outwit prosecutors. At a recent hearing in his war-crimes trial, he had another bit of theater up his sleeve.

Rebutting accusations that he had incited ethnic violence, he insisted that, really, inflammatory speech was not that unusual. He began quoting the lyrics of a song, one of his favorites, he said. In ringing tones, he read out the stanzas: "Citizens, take up your arms! Form your battalions! ... Let the blood of the unclean soak our fields."

Seselj then turned to the chief judge, Jean-Claude Antonetti of France, and said with glee: "I'm sure you recognized the verses. This is the national anthem of France."

Known for loutish outbursts and a fierce intellect, Seselj has been free to display these qualities in court because he is acting as his own lawyer. Throughout his trial, he has used his perch to hurl insults at court officers, attack his political enemies back home and delay proceedings with exceptional demands. The case, now in its fifth year, is the longest before the tribunal prosecuting suspects in atrocities committed during Yugoslavia's wars of the 1990s.

This and other international tribunals have seen truculent defendants before, the best known among them former President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who died here in 2006 of a heart attack before the end of his trial. But Seselj's drawn-out case has reignited a debate over how much bad behavior in the dock should be tolerated before the rules are changed.

As international criminal justice expands, and high-profile suspects are served arrest warrants, courts are likely to face many more military commanders and political leaders who have a flair for the dramatic and are used to getting their way.

In The Hague, former President Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast awaits trial at the International Criminal Court, where a warrant for the arrest of President Omar Hassan Bashir of Sudan is still outstanding. The verdict for Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, is due this month, and the trial of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander, is expected to start in May.

Until now, lawyers and academics say, international judges have been rather lenient in an effort to move the process along and keep defendants involved in the proceedings.

Taylor, for instance, boycotted his trial at first, until he got the higher-caliber team of legal aid lawyers he had demanded. And Seselj went on a hunger strike when judges imposed a standby lawyer to rein in his disruptions. After four weeks of taking no food or medicine, a seriously weakened Seselj was told by appeals judges that he could continue to act as his own lawyer. In both cases, there were murmurs that the courts had given in to blackmail.

But the question that keeps coming up among judges and lawyers is how to adjust procedures to limit the grandstanding and bullying while preserving standards of justice.

The answers have been widely different.

The rules at the temporary tribunals and at the permanent International Criminal Court, all created in the past two decades, say that representing oneself at trial is a fundamental right, even though many countries do not permit this in their national systems. This right, however, can be restricted or suspended if a defendant refuses to cooperate or persists in derailing the process.

Some experts have called for a more radical solution. Geoffrey Robertson, a former international judge and a defense counsel based in London, said that perhaps the time had come to move away from the Anglo-American adversarial system on which much of international criminal justice is based.

"Civil law may be more suitable than common law for complex war-crimes trials," he said, because it does not depend on the cooperation of the defendant. Civil law gives a far greater role to judges, who examine the evidence and present their findings, which the defense may challenge. "An uncooperative defendant could be denied the right to an adversary trial," he said.

Few have been more invidious than Seselj.

Most malevolent, in the view of the court, has been his persistent use of his website, which is run from Belgrade, for publishing confidential court documents and revealing the names of protected witnesses. Prosecutors say this has led at least 10 crucial witnesses to withdraw or change their testimony.

Seselj has been convicted twice of contempt of court, and a third contempt trial is under way. But nothing much has changed. When the website is closed in one country, it reappears elsewhere.

In court, Seselj, speaking as accused and as lawyer, has made his position abundantly clear. Since he surrendered to the tribunal in 2003, he has repeatedly said that he was using the court as a political stage because it was "above all a political court" created by the West to punish Serbia.

"So the only way to confront you is with political speeches that are smarter than yours," he said.

Seselj has been charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, and his indictment holds him responsible for offenses such as the killing, raping and looting committed by the gangs of Serbian irregulars he mobilized in 1991 to fight in Croatia and Bosnia. The verdict is expected this year.

He has called no witnesses in his defense. But as his trial ended last month, he delivered a 10-hour summary speech over three days, with a clear eye on the Serbian elections in May. He is still the head of the influential far-right Serbian Radical Party. "I despise this court, and I'm here to shatter you," he boasted. "It might take its physical toll on me, but I'm enjoying it. I'm having the time of my life."

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