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Milosevic Challenges Testimony of First Witness - 2002-02-19

Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic began cross-examining the first prosecution witness Tuesday at his trial before the United Nations war crimes tribunal. The former Yugoslav leader grilled the first witness in a vigorous hours-long cross-examination.

In an aggressive cross-examination that sought to discredit the prosecution's first witness, Mr. Milosevic questioned Kosovo Albanian political leader Mahmut Bakali for almost four hours, twice as long as prosecutors.

Mr. Bakali testified Monday about the "apartheid state" Serb leaders imposed on Kosovo's ethnic Albanians after Slobodan Milosevic's rise to power. He also testified that during his meetings with the former president, he informed Slobodan Milosevic that Serb forces were committing crimes against ethnic Albanians, particularly the 1998 massacre of the Jashari family. Mahmut Bakali testified that Milosevic knew about the crimes.

Richard Dicker, of Human Rights Watch, called the former president's cross-examination a solid, forceful and accomplished performance. "What we saw today was Slobodan Milosevic mounting a vigorous cross-examination of a prosecution witness, and that kind of cross-examination is a hallmark of a fair trial," he said. "I think what we saw today in broader terms was justice. This is what fair trials look like."

But Richard Dicker says despite the vigorous questioning, he doesn't believe Mr. Milosevic discredited Mahmut Bakali's basic assertion about the so-called apartheid state Albanians were living under during Mr. Milosevic's rule.

In often-heated exchanges with Mr. Bakali, Slobodan Milosevic tried to portray the attack on the Jashari family as a defense against terrorism. He also tried to show that the exodus of 800,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, a crime prosecutors attribute to him, was because of NATO bombs and Albanian terrorists, who he says forced them to leave.

It's a charge Mahmut Bakali flatly denied, saying even his own family was forced to flee Kosovo. He addressed the former President in Serbian saying, "You, Mr. Milosevic, destroyed Yugoslavia and the very idea of Yugoslavia."

Mr. Milosevic went on to ask if the same terrorist forces were still committing crimes against Serbs. That prompted Judge Richard May, who appeared to grant Mr. Milosevic much leeway in his questioning, to ask what the relevance is between what's happening today and the 3-year-old crimes he is charged with.

Mr. Milosevic responded, "it can be relevant because as I've maintained here over the past few days, that it is a protracted crime that we're dealing with. And I gave an explanation of this with respect to political, strategic and historical reasons and conditions, is continuing and that is why it is relevant and linked to what we're talking about."

His answer is the mirror image of prosecutor's charges, which say it was Mr. Milosevic who acted in a joint criminal enterprise to commit crimes in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia, all part of what they call the same plan.

These divergent views of what happened in the Balkans will no doubt be heard again throughout the trial, which resumes Wednesday with prosecution investigators giving their version of events.

But one thing is clear: Mr. Milosevic may say, as he repeated in court Tuesday, that this is not a real trial. But judging from his first cross-examination, he is clearly engaged in the process.