Serb nationalist fails to show at war crimes trial

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The Independent Online

One of Serbia's most infamous paramilitary leaders boycotted the start of his war crimes trial in The Hague yesterday. Vojislav Seselj is accused of unleashing a bloody campaign of persecution, extermination, murder and atrocities against non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.

Mr Seselj, 52, one of the most prominent political figures in the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal's custody, claimed he was too weak to attend trial after being on hunger strike for the past fortnight in protest at what he called the "prejudiced" court.

After yesterday's no-show, the presiding judge Alphons Orie said he had permanently lost his right to defend himself. "He persists in not taking food, he persists in not being present," the judge said. "The court finds the accused's self-representation has essentially obstructed the proper and expeditious proceedings," he added, instructing stand-by defence lawyers to take over.

Mr Seselj, a lawyer, surrendered to the UN tribunal in 2003, protesting his innocence and vowing to ridicule it by defending himself. He refused all co-operation with the tribunal, denouncing its officials as "spies". He was banned from representing himself in August after disrupting pre-trial hearings, telling judges to remove their robes because they reminded him of medieval inquisitors. Mr Seselj also refused to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer "with a bird's nest on his head", a reference to the barristers' traditional wig.

But the tribunal's appeals chamber later restored his right to self-defence while assigning a stand-by counsel should Mr Seselj obstruct proceedings again.

Mr Seselj's tactics and strategy closely resemble the moves of his ally, the former leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died in the tribunal's custody in March while still on trial.

Many fear that if Mr Seselj dies in custody he will become a martyr among Serbs, despite the efforts of the court to prosecute those responsible for the bloody wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. His ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) is Serbia's most popular, with a third of seats in parliament and support levels that never drop below 30 to 35 per cent - far higher than any pro-democratic party.

Serbia holds crucial parliamentary elections in January, and analysts fear the events surrounding Mr Seselj's trial might boost the popularity of the SRS.

Mr Seselj became well-known in Serbia as Milosevic's right-hand man. Famed for his boasts that his fighters would cut the throats of Croats with rusty spoons, he organised gangs of "volunteers" who committed atrocities against civilians. Many volunteers were convicted criminals, set free with the promise of shortened sentences once the wars ended.