The UN war crimes tribunal banned Slobodan Milosevic and ultra-nationalist Serb leader Vojislav Seselj from using telephones after the pair began campaigning for political office from their cells yesterday.
The ban, which is to last for 30 days, was imposed because both were found to be using phones in their detention unit to organise party activists ahead of the Serbian parliamentary elections scheduled for 28 December.
The tribunal in The Hague, convened to try Mr Milosevic and Mr Seselj for war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo after the fall of Communism, forbids detainees from communicating with the media. The ban, however, does not extend to phone communications between the indictees and their families or legal counsel.
Mr Milosevic and Mr Seselj have addressed their parties' leaderships on several occasions in the past weeks and their messages were later carried by Serb media, to the outrage of the reform-oriented contingent of the Serbian public. Despite the charges, both men top the election lists of their respective parties for the forthcoming polls.
Party delegates flew to Holland last month to consult with the two over the election lists for Mr Milosevic's Socialist Party and Mr Seselj's Radicals. Supporters of the pair argue that, until the tribunal reaches its conclusion, they are both free men. Mr Milosevic's genocide hearing has begun; a date for Mr Seselj's trial has not yet been set.
"The presumption of innocence enables them to run for the parliament and even become MPs," the head of the Serbian Electoral Commission, Radoslav Bacovic, said yesterday. "They can lose MP status only after being sentenced," he added.
Despite Mr Milosevic's fall from power three years ago, Serbia still remains deeply divided on his and Mr Seselj's role in the wars that tore the former Yugoslavia apart. Sections of the public are still deeply loyal to their concept of Serb patriotism and defiance.
The forthcoming elections are expected to be the final battle between the pro-reform and nationalist-oriented parties in Serbia.