The Sorry Acquittal of Vojislav Seselj

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Last week a Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia acquitted Vojislav Seselj, an ultra-nationalist Serb politician, for crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and even Serbia itself. It did so by 2 votes to 1. Readers will already be familiar with the disaster that was the Seselj trial, which is now further compounded by the judicial fiasco that is the trial judgment. Fiasco is in fact the word used by the presiding French judge, Jean-Claude Antonetti, to describe the case in the conclusion of his profoundly dilettantish 500-page concurring opinion. This concurrence is a perfect sequel to his equally unreadable 600-page doozy in the Prlic case, and he uses it to blame everybody but himself for everything that went wrong in the case which is, well, everything. The judgment (in French) is here, as is the dissenting opinion of Judge Lattanzi (‘dissenting’ is not a strong enough word, as she herself says); the summaries of the judgment and the dissent in English are here and here.

Corax, Danas 4.4.2016.

There are so many problems with this judgment that it’s hard to know where to start, so let me paint you the big picture. The main issue is not with the acquittal, which may or may not be the appropriate result, but with how that result was reached. The entire judgment is a reductionist dismissal of the case presented by the prosecution, which is always taken as ungenerously as is humanly possible, while at the same time castigating the prosecution (without any hint of self-irony) for presenting a reductionist version of the complex reality of the wars of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.

Thus the majority arrives at conclusions which are at odds with literally dozens of previous judgments issued by the Tribunal: there were no crimes against humanity committed in Bosnia and Croatia, since the contextual element of widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population were not met, as it is only natural for people to suffer on all sides during a war, and there was no joint criminal enterprise to commit crimes against non-Serbs in which the accused could even take part. Just look at this:

192. À la lumière de l’ensemble de la preuve versée au dossier, la Chambre, à la majorité, la Juge Lattanzi dissidente, conclut que l’Accusation n’a pas prouvé au-delà de tout doute raisonnable qu’une attaque généralisée ou systématique aurait été lancée contre la population civile non serbe dans de vastes portions de la Croatie et de la BiH. La majorité considère notamment quel’Accusation n’a pas prouvé que les populations non serbes vivant dans les municipalités de Vukovar, Zvornik, la région de Sarajevo, et les municipalités de Mostar et de Nevesinje, ont été lacible d’une campagne de violence et de mauvais traitements. La majorité estime n’avoir pas reçu de preuve établissant de façon irréfutable une attaque dirigée de façon généralisée ou systématique contre des populations civiles ; que la preuve soumise et examinée fait plutôt état d’un conflit armé entre des forces militaires adverses, avec des composantes civiles. La présence de combattants civils dans des proportions indéterminées, dans le cadre d’affrontements que beaucoup de témoins ont décrits comme des combats de rue où chaque portion de territoire, chaque maison était disputée, offre un contexte qui ne permet pas de conclure à une attaque dirigée contre des civils.

And so on. The discussion regarding the JCE is especially flawed, with the majority engaging in a pedantic critique of the prosecution’s alleged failure to specify the common criminal purpose (para. 221 e seq.) The relevant section of Judge Antonetti’s individual opinion (p. 428) is particularly illuminating, as it shows that the presiding judge was incapable of grasping the basic distinction between a common criminal purpose (forcibly displacing Croats and Bosniaks) and motive (different ideological versions of a Greater Serbia) among the different participants in the JCE. That, in other words, Milosevic, Karadzic and Seselj may have had political and ideological differences about their ultimate goals does not ipso facto mean that they could not have shared a common purpose of ethnically cleansing Serb-claimed parts of Bosnia and Croatia. Not to mention that just a week before the Seselj judgment the Karadzic Trial Chamber not only unanimously found that a JCE existed, but also that Seselj himself was a member thereof (para. 3458).

I could go on – this is simply the worst part of a comprehensively bad judgment. And while I have no doubt that the prosecution could have done better (not that indicting Seselj was the wisest course of action in the first place), it is demonstrably unfair to blame the prosecution as being unable to prove such fundamentals as is the existence of a widespread or systematic attack against non-Serbs or the JCE. As Judge Lattanzi points out in her dissent (paras. 2 and 3): “Je ne partage pas non plus la critique violente dirigée à l’encontre du Procureur, son Acte d’accusation et toutes ses écritures ultérieures. Il est vrai que le Procureur aurait dû faire mieux. Mais, à mon avis, c’est surtout la Chambre – dans sa vieille composition, comme dans la nouvelle – qui aurait dû faire mieux, nonobstant la complexité de l’affaire et les difficultés que nous avons rencontrées en particulier s’agissant du comportement de l’Accusé avec les témoins et ses obstructions à la procédure.”

I also have no doubt that with its many flaws the judgment will be reversed on appeal. But what good exactly will that accomplish? Its principal damage – that of reinforcing diverging ethnic realities in the Balkans – will already have been done. The Appeals Chamber might consider that it cannot simply reverse on appeal but that it has to order a retrial, all of which will take many more years. And while Seselj seems in better health now that he is in Belgrade rather than in The Hague, it also seems unlikely that he will live all that long. It seems even less likely that the current Serbian leadership, consisting incidentally of his erstwhile proteges, will actually surrender him to the ICTY for further proceedings. In short, as Judge Antonetti so melodramatically put it when he read out the judgment, for all intents and purposes Seselj will remain a free man – just as Seselj’s case, from start to finish, will remain a stain on the Tribunal’s reputation.


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Jens Iverson says

April 5, 2016

I thought this might be the most revealing portion of the summary of the judgement: "Added to this ambiguity are wide-ranging charges which for the Prosecution consist of targeting all the possible modes of criminal conduct provided for under Article 7 (1) of the Statute of the Tribunal, without them necessarily corresponding to the described facts. Thus, the same facts have been qualified as acts of direct commission, acts attributed to a criminal enterprise, acts of incitement or aiding and abetting. The same acts that are qualified as murder, torture and cruel treatment, crimes of expulsion, inhumane acts (forcible transfer), wanton destruction and plunder of public or private property, are also referred to as acts of persecution. Overall, the Prosecution applies a circular approach in which practically each crime has multiple qualifications and each mode of participation in crimes seems to absorb or is superimposed on every another. While the cumulative charging approach of combined offences is generally permitted, on condition that the facts allow for this, in the opinion of the majority, it is much more for difficult to accept indiscriminate use of all the possible modes of liability with almost no regard for the specificity of the facts. Judgements have reprimanded the Prosecution for this catch-all practice. The majority regrets the maximalist approach, but not in order to claim that it impaired the proceedings and compromised Vojislav Šešelj’s effective defence. It must be emphasised that the latter was able to present all of his arguments. The majority simply underlined that, regrettably, the Prosecution’s ambiguities complicated an approach that could have been more simple for the Prosecution, but also for the Defence and the Chamber. The last two were both condemned to a certain degree to follow the furrow dug out by the Prosecution. The Prosecution Pre-trial and final briefs should have helped to lift some initial ambiguities. On the contrary, instead of presenting the work plan of the Prosecution in regards to the facts to be proved and of reviewing at the end of the trial how the Prosecution completed its task, the briefs rather appeared to the majority as new charging instruments in which each of which one was aimed at presenting the entire Prosecution argument. Thus it is with some difficulty that the Chamber has tried to untangle the disparate submissions of the Prosecution."

You can hear the exasperation here - which one can't wonder is critical in understanding the majority's overall approach.

Marko Milanovic says

April 6, 2016

Also revealing is an interview that Judge Lattanzi gave to an Italian website covering the Balkans, here:

She says that the judgment is legally and factually so bad that it is a nullity, counting for nothing. She also adds (towards the very end) that she suffered (that's the exact word she uses) a great deal through the Seselj case, only managing to survive due to her work on other cases. When asked what exactly led to the outcome of the Seselj case, she says that she has her own speculations about this, but cannot reveal them/speak about them publicly ("Ancora adesso mi chiedo perché questa sentenza sia finita in questo modo. Dentro di me faccio delle ipotesi, ma non le posso certo rivelare. Non posso dire quello che penso.")

Richard Ashby Wilson says

April 6, 2016

Agreed. It's a monstrously bad judgment that willfully misconstrues the evidence presented before it. One of the most illustrative and perplexing paragraphs claims, in reference to deportations in Vojvodina, ¶193 “the buses which were chartered in this context were not forced transfer operations of population, but rather acts of humanitarian assistance to non- combatants who fled areas where they no longer felt safe.”