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Milosevic Trial To Test Justice System - 2002-02-11

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic goes on trial Tuesday at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. The court case has been billed as the most important war crimes trial since top Nazi officials were tried at Nuremberg after World War II. Mr. Milosevic faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during three wars in the 1990s that led to the dismemberment of Yugoslavia.

Mr. Milosevic's Yugoslav legal advisers say he is physically and psychologically fit for his trial. But they say the former strongman does not expect justice.

Mr. Milosevic has mocked the process ever since he was arrested by officials of Yugoslavia's Serbian Republic last year and packed off to The Hague. But the prosecution believes it has a compelling case against him, and tribunal officials, like spokesman Jim Landale, believe the trial is a test case for the United Nations court and for international justice.

"Yes, this is an absolutely key moment in the life of this institution; I think a landmark, as well, for international justice," he said. "This is a huge trial, as many people have commented, the biggest or the most significant since the end of the Second World War in the Nuremberg trials. This is also very important, I think, to the victims of the crimes that Slobodan Milosevic is charged [with]."

Compulsively defiant, Mr. Milosevic has refused to recognize the tribunal's legitimacy, to read court documents, to enter a plea or to meet with lawyers appointed by the court after he said he would not appoint his own attorney.

Every time he has appeared in court, Mr. Milosevic has repeated over and over and over again that he does not recognize the validity of the court and that its charges against him are illegitimate. "I'm not recognizing this tribunal, considering it completely illegitimate and illegal," he said.

But prosecutors say that in Croatia and Bosnia, in the early to mid-1990s, and again in Kosovo, in 1999, Mr. Milosevic presided over an array of war crimes against non-Serbs in his effort to build an ethnically pure greater Serbia.

In May 1999, Louise Arbour, who was then the tribunal's chief prosecutor, indicted Mr. Milosevic and four of his top lieutenants for war crimes committed in Kosovo, including crimes against humanity. "I presented an indictment for confirmation against Slobodan Milosevic and four others, charging them with crimes against humanity, specifically murder, deportation and persecutions, and with violation of the laws and customs of war," she said.

Last November, Ms. Arbour's successor, Carla del Ponte, issued more indictments against Mr. Milosevic for crimes committed during the Bosnia and Croatia wars, including genocide.

Prosecutors say that, during the three wars waged by Mr. Milosevic, civilians were the chief targets, as Serb forces unleashed heavy artillery against cities, towns and villages populated by non-Serbs and snipers targeted men, women and children indiscriminately. And then, say prosecutors, there were the concentration camps, where men were tortured and women were raped.

Ms. Del Ponte's challenge is to prove that Mr. Milosevic was responsible for the crimes even if he did not literally have blood on his hands. The testimony from victims of the war crimes is likely to be compelling, but prosecutors are hoping that the most convincing testimony will come from about 20 high-level Serb and Yugoslav political and security officials with first-hand knowledge of what their former leader said and did. It is still uncertain how many of these people will show up at the trial.

For his part, Mr. Milosevic is expected to say, with apparent conviction, that he acted to defend his country and to fight terrorists and that he was the victim of NATO aggression.