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Serb Leader, On Trial for War Crimes, Refuses to Enter Plea - 2003-02-26

The ultra-nationalist Serb leader Vojislav Seselj refused to enter a plea at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Prosecutors have charged him with 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the extermination and persecution of non-Serbs during the early years of the Balkans war. But Mr. Seselj says the charges against him are unclear.

It took more than two hours for court officials to read out all the charges against Vojislav Seselj, as he insisted they do. He listened intently and smiled occasionally as prosecutors accused him of being part of a criminal enterprise to create a Greater Serbia through ethnic cleansing.

Still, Mr. Seselj said the charges were unclear, telling the presiding judge he would not enter a plea until all translations in the indictment were explained. Mr. Seselj has 30 days to enter a plea.

In the meantime, he had several more complaints for the court. Mr. Seselj sounded much like his sometime ally Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav President who is on trial in the same court for genocide.

Mr. Seselj accused the court of being biased against him. Like Mr. Milsoevic, he refuses to hire a lawyer, insisting he will represent himself. He also accused the court of torturing him, a reference to the 20 kilogram flak jacket he said he was forced to wear to court for his own protection. He insists he does not need such protection.

Vojislav Seselj even complained about the judge's red and black robes. He spoke through an interpreter. "This associates me with the inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church and psychologically I find this unacceptable and I insist that everyone should wear normal civilian clothing," he said.

The presiding judge reminded Mr. Seselj several times that it's up to the court and not the accused to make the rules.

Although he is a lawyer, many of Mr. Seselj's demands are not likely to help him legally. They could, however, play well back home in Serbia-Montenegro, where the proceedings were being broadcast live.

Like Slobodan Milosevic and many Serbs, Mr. Seselj said the tribunal is biased.

Part politician, part paramilitary leader, Vojislav Seselj has vowed to defend all of Serbia - the 10,000 men he calls heroes and freedom fighters who bravely fought the wars.

But prosecutors say it was Mr. Seselj's speeches, financing activities, recruitment and planning that incited troops to murder, torture and rape. Those troops included Mr. Seselj's own paramilitary group.

Mr. Seselj's guilt or innocence regarding those alleged crimes has now been left for another day. Any trial for the man who just two months ago came in second in Serbia's presidential elections is unlikely to start for months. But if Wednesday's court appearance is anything to judge by, it's likely to be long and difficult.