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Home EJIL Analysis Breaking: Judge Harhoff Disqualified from the Seselj Case

Breaking: Judge Harhoff Disqualified from the Seselj Case

Published on August 28, 2013        Author: 

I’ve just been informed by a reliable source that the special ICTY chamber appointed to hear Seselj’s motion to recuse Judge Harhoff from his case for appearance of bias has accepted the motion. (This is of course one more chapter in the continuing Meron/Harhoff saga). That means that the Seselj case is probably going bust, as no stand-by judge was sitting in who could replace Harhoff. More to follow, once the decision is made public.

UPDATE: The decision is now officially available here. The Chamber split 2 to 1, Judges Moloto and Hall in favour, Judge Liu vigorously dissenting, finding that there was an appearance of bias. Money quote:

13. By referring to a “set practice” of convicting accused persons without reference to an evaluation of the evidence in each individual case, the Majority, Judge Liu dissenting, considers that there are grounds for concluding that a reasonable observer, properly informed, would reasonably apprehend bias on the part of Judge Harhoff in favour of conviction. This includes for the purposes of the present case. This appearance of bias is further compounded by Judge Harhoff’s statement that he is confronted by a professional and moral dilemma, which in the view of the Majority, is a clear reference to his difficulty in applying the current jurisprudence of the Tribunal. In the circumstances, the Majority considers that the Letter, when read as a whole, rebuts the presumption of impartiality. … 14. The Majority, Judge Liu dissenting, finds that in the Letter Judge Harhoff has demonstrated a bias in favour of conviction such that a reasonable observer properly informed would reasonably apprehend bias.

We’ll see what this means for the Seselj case and possibly other cases before the ICTY in which Judge Harhoff was involved. Dov Jacobs has more commentary here and here. For my part, the decision does seem to be based on a rather cursory and acontextual assessement of the Harhoff letter, as Judge Liu points out in his dissent, and is moreover not clear as to whether Harhoff is being disqualified for apparent or actual bias. And to the extent that Judge Harhoff had any difficulties in applying the current jurisprudence of the Tribunal (assuming that the jurisprudence he takes issue with would actually be central to the Seselj case), one assumes that any errors of law he made could be corrected on appeal.

As for Seselj, the trial itself has been badly mismanaged almost from the very start. Seselj himself surrendered to the ICTY some 10 years ago, on the eve of the assassination of the first democratically elected prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, by a cabal of secret police, mafia and war criminal types, of which Seselj probably had some advance knowledge. From the very get go he set out to ‘destroy’ the Tribunal, inter alia by representing himself and being disruptive to the absolute maximum. When the Trial Chamber originally assigned to his case decided to appoint counsel and deny him self-representation, Seselj went on a hunger strike. Fearing the potential fallout from Seselj dying in custody after the death of Milosevic, the Appeals Chamber made an essentially political decision to reverse the appointment of counsel and change the Trial Chamber that would hear the case, adopting an absolutist position on self-representation that is certainly not warranted by human rights considerations (note that had Seselj been tried in Serbia itself, he would have to have been represented by counsel, as is the case in many other European jurisdictions in serious cases).

The presiding judge of the newly assigned Trial Chamber went on to demonstrate little evidence of competence, with Seselj more or less doing as he pleased in the courtroom, despite several prosecutions and convictions for contempt of Tribunal. The trial closed in March 2012, and the issuance of the judgment was scheduled for 30 October 2013. In other words, it took a year and a half to draft the trial judgment in what is on any objective account a mid-range, not particularly demanding case. And now that trial judgment might never be issued because of the whole Harhoff affair – I at least see no way of salvaging the trial that would not be unfair towards Seselj. Even if Seselj had been convicted, it is likely that the sentence he would get would be absorbed by the 10 years he spent in detention on remand. In any event Seselj will soon be returning to Belgrade in triumph. He may not have ‘destroyed’ the Tribunal, but he was certainly happy to watch it destroy itself.

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6 Responses

  1. I posted some preliminary thoughts earlier this evening on Spreading the Jam

    http://dovjacobs.blogspot.nl/2013/08/nightmare-scenario-at-icty-judge.html

    I’d be happy to cross post on EJIL Talk! :-)

  2. Marko Milanovic Marko Milanovic

    Thanks for the upload Dov. The decision is now also available on the ICTY website.

  3. Marko Prelec

    In theory, the case is supposed to go on. Rule 15 (A), unlike Rule 15 bis, just says the President appoints a new judge and that’s that. No requirement to certify familiarity with the record, no appeal. Though I think basic principles of justice require at least a pause to allow the replacement to get up to speed.

  4. Marko Milanovic Marko Milanovic

    Marko,

    I agree that’s formally the case, though the Tribunal may be inclined to apply 15 bis at least partly by analogy. But as you say this comes down to basic fair trial principles, even if the replacement judge is allowed time to get up to speed etc, it is highly questionable whether the replacement judge can rule on a case which he did not spend a single day in hearing. The whole point of oral hearings at trial is the immediacy and directness in assessing the evidence. And here we have a case in which the judgment is basically already written – how exactly is the replacement judge supposed to act under these circumstances I have no idea. Ordering a rehearing also doesn’t seem to be an option, because of the Tribunal closing down and because of the excessively lengthy time that Seselj has already spent in detention (even though that was partly/mostly his own fault).

  5. […] of the decision by a specially-convened ICTY Chamber (a 2-1 decision with Judge Liu dissenting) to disqualify Judge Harhoff for bias in the Vojislav Seselj case.  The decision is available here and for context, here is our earlier post on the letter that led […]