A Week at the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

Showing Due Deference to the Court
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 14 2005 6:15 AM

A Week at the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

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Showing due deference to the court.

Vojislav Seselj, former leader of the Serbian Radical Party. Click image to expand.
Vojislav Seselj, former leader of the Serbian Radical Party

THE HAGUE, Netherlands; Aug 23, 2005 The first time I saw Slobodan Milosevic in action, I was struck by a bizarre but persistent resemblance: This man looks like Bill Murray. He's got the same doughy face, the same unruly hair, and—most striking—the same ironic sensibility and semi-permanent state of bemusement. When the judges scold him for transgressions of courtroom procedure or etiquette, his eyebrows shoot crookedly up while the rest of his face relaxes into a thousand-yard stare, with just a hint of a sardonic twitch at the corners of his mouth. He is absolutely at ease in the courtroom. Arms crossed over his chest while asking questions, he often rocks back in his chair as he speaks to the witness or a judge. If he motions while he's talking, it's only slightly and with a kind of measured grace. He's got a deep voice, although I can't shake the feeling that, with proper Slavic machismo, he's trained it to resonate at a pitch lower than comes naturally.

We hear his voice a lot. Last November, the tribunal's appeals court ruled that Milosevic has the right to represent himself as long as he behaves well and isn't incapacitated by his chronic hypertension. In effect, this means that he decides which witnesses to present, handles all the direct examinations, and makes his own opening and closing statements. His two court-assigned lawyers step in only occasionally to assist on legal points.

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Today's witness is Vojislav Seselj (his last name is pronounced "Sheh-shell"), leader of the Serbian Radical Party, a strident nationalist group that is one of the most powerful factions in Yugoslavia's parliament. Famously an academic prodigy who claims to have completed his Ph.D. at a younger age than anyone in Yugoslav history, Seselj was jailed as a dissident under the Titoist regime in the mid-1980s. After some time in the political wilderness, he rode the nationalist tide to a central position in Serb politics, becoming vice president of Serbia in the late 1990s. Now 50 years old, he looks to be about 6 foot 4, with broad shoulders and a pugnacious, lumpen charisma. His light brown hair is lank and graying on the sides, a cowlick swirling on the crown of his head. His square face and large W.C. Fields nose are dominated by oversize Eastern Bloc glasses.

Seselj is himself a defendant before the tribunal, awaiting trial on charges that he was responsible for a horrific series of war crimes committed during the Balkan conflict ranging from extermination to mass deportations. He and Milosevic have a long history. Milosevic jailed Seselj on several occasions in the early 1990s for various forms of rabble-rousing, although in the later stages of Milosevic's regime, the two of them cooperated in a governing coalition.

This morning, the two men are discussing Kosovo. Not surprisingly, we don't hear much about the prosecution's description of a calculated campaign of terror by Serb forces aimed at driving Kosovo's Albanian majority out of the country. Instead, Seselj explains that all of Kosovo's problems stem from Western forces' continuing efforts to eviscerate Serbia. Why target the Serbs? Well, because of Catholicism's longstanding grudge against the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Vatican conceived a plan to demonize the Serbs and destroy the Yugoslav republic. NATO signed on because, not satisfied with the mere collapse of the Soviet Union, it wanted to break Russia up into a flock of vassal states. Since Serbia was the only nation that would stand strong against this otherwise inexorable march to the east, NATO began whispering secret encouragement in the ears of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and fanning their longstanding separatist dreams.

Seselj slouches in his chair behind the witness table as he recounts this version of history, his finger jabbing violently and his voice settling somewhere in the range of a low bellow. When the judges ask him to speak more softly, he waves them off with typical belligerence: "Please do not expect me to speak as Mr. Nice speaks. My wife would leave me immediately." Head prosecutor Geoffrey Nice, whose voice is truly a honeyed balm, lets this pass without comment. Milosevic clearly enjoys the spectacle. A playful half-smirk on his face, he says: "Mr. Seselj speaks loudly. It's a habit he has. I have never heard him speak softly." Patrick Robinson, the presiding judge, shakes his head and tells Milosevic to continue with his questions.

In Seselj's picture of the Kosovo conflict, local terrorists planned a massive migration of the Albanian population in order to fake a humanitarian crisis, working with Western intelligence agencies to spew "the most terrible slogans in order to blacken the names of the Serbs." In league with them was a bevy of international aid organizations, most of which were American cat's-paws filled with CIA spies. Seselj's bile rises further as he refers to reports by a U.S. congressional committee that called for a "trigger event" to justify American invasion. His hand chops furiously at the air as he describes byzantine plots by Yugoslav army turncoats to move hundreds of corpses from Kosovo to other places in Serbia that NATO deliberately avoided bombing, all to frame the Milosevic government for phantom atrocities.

Everything else, Seselj insists, was a misunderstanding of the Serbian government's devoted efforts to protect Kosovo's Albanian population. When he threatened in a notorious speech that "in the event of an American aggression ... there will be no Albanians in Kosovo any more," he was actually trying to explain that misguided American bombs would probably kill a lot of Albanians. The massacre of Albanians in the village of Racak, where dozens of villagers were rounded up and shot, was actually just a successful police operation: "Only terrorists got killed. Not a single civilian was killed." Seselj pauses for a moment, thoughtfully. "Of course, there were those terrorists who fought in civilian clothing."

Following the lunch break, Milosevic and Seselj hit a sticky spot. Seselj has been refusing to rise with the rest of the courtroom when the judges enter and exit. I must confess reluctant sympathy on this point; no matter how often I'm told that it reflects not servility toward the judges as people but respect for the court as an institution, the practice has always grated on me, even back home. Here at the tribunal, many staff members go so far as to bow to the judges when they enter the room, some executing florid obeisances worthy of a high-school Shakespeare production (some judges are gracious enough to nod back). While not demanding quite this degree of abasement, Judge Robinson threatens to bar any further testimony if Seselj continues to boycott the physical pantomime of deference.

Seselj's explanation raises a few eyebrows. "I was told by priests of the Serb Orthodox Church before arriving here that the uniforms worn by the judges here resemble the uniform worn by the former Catholic inquisition. The way you bow when you enter the courtroom reminds me of a satanic ritual. I'm afraid that should I bow to your ceremonial, my consciousness might be affected by forces I cannot control." But with Robinson holding firm, Seselj promises to change his ways, and the trial continues, its elaborate hierarchies and bizarre paranoia both preserved to clash another day.

Julian Davis Mortenson teaches constitutional law and international law at Michigan Law School.

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