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Milosevic War Crimes Trial to Begin in February - 2001-12-25

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was whisked out of Belgrade in June, to appear before the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

The first sitting head of state to be indicted for crimes against humanity will go on trial in February, even thou Mr. Milosevic has refused to recognize the court that is holding him in custody.

On July 3, 2001, a court official in The Hague called the case against Slobodan Milosevic. It was an event many thought they would never see: Slobodan Milosevic, sitting in court flanked by U.N. guards, forced to answer to charges of crimes against humanity against his own people. He maintained his defiance of the court.

"I consider this tribunal a false tribunal and the indictments false indictments. It is illegal, being not appointed by U.N. General Assembly, so I have no need to appoint counsel to illegal organ," Mr. Milosevic said.

Those were the first public words of Slobodan Milosevic after his transfer to The Hague. Made before judges, they set the tone for what is proving to be a delicate legal balancing act for the court.

Never before has it had a defendant who is so uncooperative. Mr. Milosevic has refused to appoint defense lawyers, refused to speak with prosecutors, and refused to enter pleas on all 66 counts against him.

Julija Bogoeva is a co-founder of Beta, the independent news agency in Belgrade. She lived under Slobodan Milosevic's rule for years and now reports about him from The Hague.

"Milosevic has been very consistent in his rejection of the tribunal. This is a very old, worn out line from Slobodan Milosevic. It reflects the irrational nature of this man and his blindness to the facts of the world, the world as it is. He has never understood the world, he does not understand the Tribunal," he said.

In his four court appearances, Mr. Milosevic has refused to respond to judges' questions.

He has launched into political speeches where he has attacked the court from all angles. He has called the charges absurd, tragic, and monstrous; the prosecutor, a NATO mouthpiece; the court, a retarded seven year old; the whole legal process, an attempt to falsify history. He calls himself a peacemaker, who has only been charged to cover up the real aggressor in Yugoslavia, NATO.

His attitude has left presiding Judge Richard May fighting for control of his courtroom. And more than once, Judge May has cut off Mr. Milosevic's microphone in mid-sentence.

"Mr. Milosevic, as you know, at this time you are simply required to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. You have failed to do so, accordingly, the Trial Chamber will enter pleas of not guilty on all counts of this indictment," the prosecutor said.

The judges have entered not guilty pleas for Mr. Milosevic on all the charges against him. The charges range from murder, deportation, and persecution to genocide and crimes committed during a decade of bloodshed in the Balkans from Croatia to Bosnia to Kosovo.

Prosecutors say Mr. Milosevic was the architect of a joint criminal enterprise that used the same tactics, often the same people, and had the same goals throughout the entire region - ethnically cleanse whatever land necessary to create a Serb-dominated state.

In Kosovo, prosecutors say that plan led to the deportation of 800,000 thousand ethnic Albanians and the murder of more than 900 others. Mr. Milosevic was slapped with five counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, the first charges leveled against him.

After his arrival in The Hague, prosecutors charged him with an additional 32 counts for the ethnic cleansing of about a third of Croatia. They say hundreds of Croats and non-Serbs were murdered, thousands more were imprisoned and 170,000 were deported.

Concerning Bosnia, there are 29 counts that hold Mr. Milosevic responsible for the worst crimes of the Bosnian war: the murder of thousands of Muslim men after the fall of Srebrenica, the imprisonment and murder of thousands of non-Serbs in Bosnia's prison camps, and the siege of Sarajevo.

The Bosnia charges encompass every violation in the Tribunal's statute, including its most serious, genocide. "That is the first time that happened directed against a western leader ever," said Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Dicker said prosecutors' attempts to draw a direct link between Slobodan Milosevic and those crimes are very significant. But he said there will be an uphill battle in court, all the more so, says Mr. Decker, with Mr. Milosevic refusing to mount anything that resembles a legal defense.

"It will be difficult to explain the lack of the kind of adversarial picture that people have come to expect in courtroom situations, with lawyers arguing, objecting to one another, etc. So the picture of this trial is going to look very different from the picture of trials most people are expecting, and I think for that reason it poses a real challenge to the judges, that the trial be seen as being fair and that the trial be fair to Mr. Milosevic," he said.

It is a challenge that prosecutors accept. Although Deputy Prosecutor Graham Blewitt has acknowledged that it is easier for prosecutors to present an uncontested case, he also said it comes with the added responsibility of making sure the evidence is strong enough to convince the world that justice is done should there be a conviction.

Although Mr. Blewitt said he would prefer Slobodan Milosevic to have the best defense lawyer he can find, even without one, which is Mr. Milosevic's right under the law, he is confident the trial will be fair.

"This is his choice, it is a tactic that he is deploying or employing and I don't see it makes the process any unfairer. He believes he can obtain a more satisfactory result for himself by adopting this tactic. But I do not believe it undermines the process at all. I think people can still have confidence in it," he said.

People will be able to judge for themselves soon enough. Slobodan Milosevic is slated to go on trial for the Kosovo charges February 12. The joint trial for Bosnia and Croatia will likely follow after that.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001