Prof. Vojislav Seselj, a prominent political activist and the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, has spent over eight years in the jail run by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Seselj came to the Hague voluntarily to face “the international justice” just days after an indictment against him was rolled out by Carla Del Ponte. Convinced of his innocence and determined to clear his name in the court which he actually had no reasons to trust, Seselj neither went into hiding nor attempted to negotiate any terms for the step.
The charges against Seselj obviously lacked realism and were not backed by any serious evidence. Seselj was an opposition party leader, not an army commander or a statesman, and therefore could not be personally involved in a war. Carla Del Ponte explained bluntly the reasons behind the Hague's hurriedly taking him in custody – Zoran Dindic, Serbia's premier at the time of Seselj's arrest, persistently asked to take him away and to make sure the opposition leader would never return to his home country. It took the Tribunal five years to frame Seselj and to pick the witnesses ready to supply false testimony against him.
It is an absurd situation that in the case of Seselj the Tribunal pushed for his arrest before even beginning to collect evidence that might substantiate the indictment, which, by the way, was tailored five times. The plan was to draw 144 witnesses into the process, but only 69 witnesses plus several experts were eventually found. The unprecedented duration of the trial – over eight years, as of today – is not a normal phenomenon from the legal standpoint. Only 42 sessions – mostly centered around technical issues – convened over the period of time counting a total of 2,920 days (1). Just one witness testified in 2007, 61 – in 2008, and again only 9 – in 2009. In other words, the trial practically stalled since 2008 while Seselj remains locked up in the Hague jail.
Serbia hopes to see Seselj released. The prosecution is through with presenting the evidence at its disposal as well as with hearing witnesses and experts. Interestingly, 40 of the 69 witnesses were proven to have supplied false testimony. Right during the hearings, 13 witnesses admitted to lying under pressure from the prosecution. They reported threats to open cases against if they refused to slander Seselj and to target their families. The witnesses also told about being terrorized psychologically, interrogated for hours non-stop, and promised assistance in relocating to the US and other Western countries in the framework of witness protection programs as a reward for cooperating. The judges moreover had to expel two witnesses right from the hearings as the people were simply unable to testify coherently.
It is clear that Seselj is not guilty of any crimes – he is facing accusations over his ideas and writings. While in the Tribunal's custody, he wrote several books including one describing his trial. No doubt, in the future historians and political scientists will rely on them to study the criminal activities of the ICTY.
Seselj's rights have been violated routinely throughout the eight years. He was denied the rights to being tried within a reasonably short period of time, to being fully informed about all aspects of the charges he is facing, to seeing his family, to legal counsel, to proper medical care, etc. Seselj, a lawyer by training, continues to fight for his rights as far as he can. On November 10, 2006 he went on a hunger strike which lasted for 28 days. Seselj demands to be allowed to be his own defender and to open an inquiry against ICTY prosecutors Carla Del Ponte, Dan Saxon, and Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff regarding the fact that 34 witnesses have been coerced into perjury. Seselj also accuses the Tribunal of deliberately prolonging the trial. In the light of the above, the Tribunal's contempt of court charges serially leveled at Seselj deserve to be viewed as ordinary acts of revenge.
The eight years in jail told on Seselj's health. Russian doctors keep offering their services to Seselj but the Tribunal's consent is missing. Seselj suffers from heartaches, hypertension, and arrhythmia, but jail “doctor” P. Falke who is notorious for his role in the murder of S. Milosevic did everything to prevent the information concerning Seselj's medical condition from becoming available outside the jail. The appointment of doctors supposed to probe into Seselj's medical condition was shrouded in secrecy and his medical records – promptly classified. In October, 2010 Seselj agreed to a heart surgery (during and after which the the jail's cardiograph was reportedly defunct), but the results remain hitherto unknown to Seselj and his relatives. Seselj's health is not being monitored by medical staff following the surgery.
A Serbia-Russia forum in Seselj's support convened in Belgrade on February 19, 2011. Truly speaking, the Serbian government is doing nothing for Seselj and only Moscow continues to help him.
Russia has formed a medical panel which is ready to assess Seselj's physical condition anytime, but the Tribunal persistently denies it access to the Serbian inmate. Russia's envoy brought up at the UN Security Council a number of times the issue of the unfair treatment of Seselj. Parliamentarian K. Zatulin sent a letter to Russia's foreign minister urging the foreign ministry to clarify the current situation around Seselj and to boost the efforts aimed at brining the ICTY workings to completion and at ending Seselj's trial before the events irreversibly take a tragic turn. A public committee for the defense of Seselj counting in its ranks politicians, activists, and representatives of the academic community was established in Moscow in December, 2010. The committee's objective is to ensure Seselj's release from jail. At the moment signatures are being collected under a petition which calls for freeing Seselj.
The ICTY will be closed fairly soon, and this must not be allowed to happen without its activities coming under the due scrutiny. The methods employed by the ICTY investigators and prosecutors must be subjected to careful analysis and the results must become publicly available. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia should not simply stop to exist – a panel of independent experts should assess its activities and all those unfairly sentenced must be released.
Dr. Elena Gus'kova is a historian and the head of the Balkan Studies Center of the Institute for Slavonic Studies of the Russian Academy of Science