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Milosevic War Crimes Trial Begins - 2002-02-12

The trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on war crimes charges, including genocide and crimes against humanity, has begun at the United Nations tribunal in The Hague. Opening statements by prosecutors portray Mr. Milosevic as a calculating villain whose thirst for power led him to condone what one of them described as crimes of medieval savagery in the Balkans during the 1990s.

Mr. Milosevic sat sullen and silent, and sometimes tapped his fingers in irritation, as prosecutors described scenes of murder and deportation they accuse him of overseeing during his long rule in Serbia and Yugoslavia.

The charges stem from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the early-to-mid 1990s, and the war in Kosovo in 1999. Mr. Milosevic is accused of ultimate responsibility for thousands of murders and hundreds of thousands of deportations of non-Serbs in his quest to build an ethnically pure Serb state as Yugoslavia fell apart.

Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said Mr. Milosevic was motivated to commit the crimes attributed to him because of his personal quest for power.

"An excellent tactician, a mediocre strategist, Milosevic did nothing but pursue his ambition at the price of unspeakable suffering inflicted upon those who opposed him, or who represented a threat to his personal strategy of power. Everything, your honors, everything with the accused Milosevic, was an instrument in the service of his quest for power," she said.

Ms. Del Ponte adds that it is her job to bring the first former head of state to be tried for war crimes to justice, in the name of the international community.

"This tribunal, and this trial, in particular, gives the most powerful demonstration that no one is above the law, or beyond the reach of international justice," she said.

Ms. Del Ponte's associate prosecutor, Geoffrey Nice, outlining the crimes Mr. Milosevic is accused of in Kosovo, says the key issue is why he did not act to stop what he must have known was occurring there.

"The accused, as of course is obvious, is charged in respect of these events. The issue is, or may be, did he know they were happening? Of course he did. Not only will matters have been reported to him. But in these days, when the press, radio and television bring wars to our homes as they occur, he cannot not have known. Therefore, the question is, if the chamber is in due course satisfied that he lay behind what was happening, why did he continue? Why did he not stop?" Mr. Nice questioned.

Mr. Milosevic has refused to cooperate with the tribunal, calling it illegitimate and illegal. But he will get a chance to address the chamber on Wednesday. The trial is expected to last for at least two years.