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Prosecutors at UN War Crimes Tribunal Rest Case Against Milosevic - 2004-02-27


After two years in court, prosecutors at a U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague have rested their case against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The prosecutors are trying to secure convictions on 66 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

When this case began, no one was quite sure how it would go. Slobodan Milosevic is the first head of state ever to be tried by an international court. His has insisted on representing himself, and made that clear on his first day in court. "I consider this tribunal a false tribunal and the indictments false indictments," he said. "It is illegal, being not appointed by U.N. General Assembly, so I have no need to appoint counsel to this illegal organ."

Mr. Milosevic's alleged crimes include murder, deportation, persecution and genocide committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo throughout the 1990s, including the massacre at Srebrenica.

Those gunshots were fired during the Bosnian Serbs' attack on the town of Srebrenica in July of 1995. About 7,500 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered there. One trial here has ruled it a genocide.

Although Mr. Milosevic was the president of Yugoslavia and the figurehead leader of ethnic-Serbs who carried out such atrocities, the case has not been easy for prosecutors.

They are trying to convict Mr. Milosevic on 66 counts spanning more than a decade of alleged crimes, ranging from the shelling of Sarajevo and alleged genocide in Bosnia to massive ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

During more than 300 days in court, prosecutors have called nearly 300 witnesses and presented more than a million pages of documents.

Add to that a defendant who used twice as much court time as prosecutors for his cross-examinations, and whose own health problems severely held-up the proceedings, and court observers say it becomes clear what the prosecution had to contend with.

Prosecution spokeswoman Florence Hartmann says it has been difficult, but she says prosecutors are satisfied that they have proven Mr. Milosevic's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, as required.

"We were quite afraid at the beginning, but we managed to do it. But we could have been more efficient, if we would have had access to the documents and not facing obstruction from Belgrade," she said.

Ms. Hartmann is referring to decisions by the Serbian government to deny prosecutors access to documents and witnesses.

Judith Armatta is an American lawyer who has been following the Milosevic trial for the legal rights group, Coalition for International Justice.

"I think they did amazingly well. Given the obstacles and difficulties of this kind of a case, and the first effort here of a leader representing himself, I think they did amazingly well," she said.

Ms. Armatta says she believes prosecutors have proven what they need to - that Slobodan Milosevic had direct control over events in Kosovo and enough power over rebel Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia to be held responsible for their crimes, which she says at the very least he failed to prevent.

"One of the strongest pieces of evidence, of course, was Mr. Milosevic's admission when he was arrested in Yugoslavia, he was arrested for misappropriation of customs funds," she said. "And his response to that was to sign a written statement saying, 'I did not use those for my own purposes. I used those to support the armies in the Republika Srpska and Croatian Krajina.'"

Prosecutors also presented recordings of 245 telephone calls. In one call, Mr. Milosevic is heard pledging arms to the man who was then the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic.

Prosecutors say this is just one piece of evidence showing that Mr. Milosevic supported the Bosnian Serbs. The judges have yet to rule on whether they will accept the intercepted telephone calls into evidence.

The prosecutors have also presented transcripts of Bosnian-Serb assembly meetings. In some of them, Radovan Karadzic says there would have been no war without Serbia's support, while his military commander, General Ratko Mladic, is on the record saying 90-percent of what his army had was from Mr. Milosevic's military.

That is only part of the prosecution's mountain of evidence against Mr. Milosevic. But much of it is secret, making it difficult for experts to gauge how strong the prosecution case actually is.

Some experts worry that the prosecutors tried to prove too much, and say they should have limited the charges and shortened the trial, with a view toward promoting reconciliation. The prosecutors say the goal of the War Crimes Tribunal is first and foremost justice, not reconciliation. That, they say, may come later, after the verdict is in and the crimes and responsibility for them have been established.

But first it will be Mr. Milosevic's turn to present his defense. He has three months to prepare it, and his legal advisers in Belgrade say they have a list of about 200 people he is considering calling as witnesses, including high-profile politicians.

It will be up to the judges to decide if such people are relevant to Mr. Milosevic's case and should be called to The Hague.

One of Mr. Milosevic's legal advisers, Dragan Ognjanovic, says the defense will not be easy, but his employer is up to it. "He is alone, but he is alone only in the courtroom," he said. "That means that generally speaking, he is not alone. We also have many, many people working for us, cooperating with us, helping us. It will be very difficult, of course. But right now he is a very well experienced man in the courtroom and he is doing his job very very well."

Mr. Milosevic has 300 days of experience representing himself during this trial. In arguments before the court, Mr. Milosevic has denied he had control over anyone outside Serbia. He says he was the peacemaker in the Balkans. And in Kosovo, he says, he was waging a legitimate battle against ethnic-Albanian "terrorists."

Observers say he will likely continue with those themes in his formal presentation. On each of the 66 charges, his goal is to raise reasonable doubt in the minds of the judges deciding his fate.