THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The leader of Serbia’s Radical Party stirred “poisonous” nationalism in the disintegrating Yugoslavia which led to ethnic cleansing and mass deportation of non-Serbs, prosecutors said at his trial’s opening on Wednesday.
Vojislav Seselj, who gave himself up to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in 2003, incited such hatred of Croats, Muslims and other non-Serbs it drove Serb paramilitaries to a frenzy of murder and torture, prosecutors added. He denies the charges.
Despite his detention he remains leader of the Radicals, for nearly a decade the strongest party in Serbia.
His trial is a fresh chance for prosecutors to hold Serbia’s leaders responsible for crimes during the wars that tore apart former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, after the death of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague in March 2006 ended his trial without a verdict.
Prosecutor Christine Dahl branded Seselj a “shrewd and calculating man, a self-declared scandalmonger”, who had skilfully used the media to whip up nationalist fervour and whose extreme rhetoric attracted many young Serbs.
“Just hearing his fiery threats was enough to make people fear for their lives,” she said after showing videos from the early 1990s of an animated Seselj addressing chanting crowds.
Seselj smiled in court while the old footage was shown.
He is accused of a joint criminal enterprise with Milosevic to create a “Greater Serbia” by inciting the forced removal of non-Serb peoples from large swaths of Bosnia and Croatia.
Prosecutors say hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs were displaced and killed.
“In the end Mr Seselj did not achieve a greater Serbia. He only managed to achieve a lesser Serbia, and gave the world the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’,” Dahl said.
Dressed in a dark suit with a large briefcase at his side, Seselj, 53, sat in the same courtroom used to try Milosevic. Like him, Seselj accuses the tribunal of bias against Serbs and has repeatedly sought to disrupt its proceedings.
Seselj, who last year went on hunger strike for 28 days to win the right to represent himself in court causing the start of the trial to be suspended, will get a chance to respond to the charges on Thursday.
Dahl opened the case with an account of the atrocities suffered by a Bosnian Muslim woman whose two children and husband were eventually murdered by Serbs after detention.
“Your sin is that you were Muslim,” the woman was told by the Serb soldiers detaining her.
Deprived of food and water, the woman had to give her baby urine to prevent dehydration. “Her suffering and that of her family exemplifies the product of the belligerent and bellicose nationalism propagated by the accused,” Dahl said.
Prosecutors say Seselj recruited volunteers and fed them with his “extreme ethnic rhetoric”. The professional army considered them thugs but they served a purpose — the mass killing and terrorising of non-Serbs, they allege.
In Belgrade, Seselj’s party put up posters of their leader reading “The trial begins — end Hague tyranny”.
Party secretary Aleksandar Vucic said the Radicals did not expect a fair trial but were sure Seselj would prove Serbia was not guilty of war crimes.
additional reporting by Ksenija Prodanovic