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Milosevic Trial in Recess - 2002-08-07

The war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is in recess for a few weeks. Mr. Milosevic will be back in court at the end of the month to continue defending himself against charges of crimes against humanity and genocide in the 1990s wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

The trial of Slobodan Milosevic has been going five months now, and the case that encompasses three wars, the better part of a decade, and 66 criminal charges is still in its relatively early stages.

Prosecutors have spent about 75 days trying to prove just the Kosovo part of their case: that Slobodan Milosevic is ultimately responsible for a campaign of ethnic cleansing that resulted in the murder of hundreds of ethnic Albanians and the deportation of 800,000 more. Charges stemming from wars in Croatia and Bosnia are still to come.

There has been much testimony about the shelling, looting, and burning of villages, about slaughtered livestock and burned crops, about murders, mass graves and refrigerated trucks and water wells filled with bodies. The court has heard from Western officials and military leaders, high-level Serb insiders and their former subordinates, many who testified that Mr. Milosevic knew what was going on in Kosovo.

Judges have also heard from ethnic Albanian leaders, forensic experts, and survivors of the alleged crimes. One observer following the trial, Judith Armatta with the legal rights group Coalition for International Justice, says she believes prosecutors have done a good job. "I think they've absolutely established the crime base. They've established the murders and massacres and the ethnic cleansing, the deportation," she says. "I think they've also, they can add some more stuff, but I think they've done a credible job around Milosevic's responsibility."

Presiding Judge Richard May is one of the three judges hearing the case. He often finds himself explaining the court's rules to Mr. Milosevic, who is defending himself but still insists he does not recognize the tribunal's authority.

Judge May: The role of cross-examination is to ask the witness questions about his evidence. It's not to try and score political points, which you are not doing. If you try and score political points, you'll be stopped. You're abusing the right of cross-examination and you're abusing the process of the court. So, it's a matter for you, Mr. Milosevic, whether this cross-examination continues and for how long it's allowed to continue for. But you must understand that you've been formally warned that if you continue in this way, it will be brought to an end.

Milosevic Translator: May I not ask the witness even about his own statements on television?

Mr. Milosevic and Judge May spend much of their time in court arguing. The former Yugoslav president's combative ways have not let up at all during the year he has been in the court's custody. Courtroom observers say his tactics would have any normal lawyer in contempt of court. They say Mr. Milosevic's strategies may play well to people back home, but in a court of law, they do nothing for him.

The tribunal's deputy prosecutor, Graham Blewitt, cautions against what he calls the "contest mentality," which often pits the prosecutors against Mr. Milosevic. "It's a criminal trial, it's not a tennis match," he says. "You can't assess the progress of the trial on a daily basis. What's important is at the end of the day, whether the prosecutor has called enough evidence to establish the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. That's the test, and not whether or not it's a popularity contest on a daily basis on who's winning and who's not. It's not that sort of a contest."

Prosecutor Blewitt says it is not an easy trial, but he says he is confident that in the end, Mr. Milsoevic will be convicted. But Mr. Blewitt says the judges have imposed difficult time pressures. He says this has left prosecutors struggling to shorten witness lists and cut back on evidence while still presenting enough of it for a conviction and to build a solid historical record.

Judges have given prosecutors until mid-May to finish presenting their entire case, which includes not only charges from Kosovo but also charges stemming from the war in Croatia and the most serious charge of genocide in relation to Bosnia.

The recess is giving Mr. Milosevic a few weeks to prepare his defense and also get some much-needed rest. A recent medical examination found him at high risk for a heart attack. Judges are considering what action to take to reduce the former Yugoslav president's workload - a step that could force them to abandon their own strict timetable.