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Yugoslavia: Prosecution Wrapping Up Its Case, But Milosevic Trial Expected To Last Many Years Longer

  • Julia Geshakova

The trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the first former head of state to face international justice, began in February 2002. Two years later, prosecutors are set to wrap up their case against the former Yugoslav president, who stands accused of masterminding the bloody wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. RFE/RL looks at how the trial has proceeded -- and the long way it has to go before it is completed.

Prague, 19 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- After two years, the balance sheet currently stands at almost 300 days in court, some 300 witnesses summoned to testify and thousands of pages of documents submitted.

Yet, it may be many more years before a verdict is issued against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, in a trial sometimes described as the most important since Nazi leaders faced the court in Nuremberg at the end of World War II.

Milosevic faces 66 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The charges stem from his alleged role in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s and in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. He faces separate genocide charges for the war in Bosnia, which left more than 200,000 people dead.

"Yet, the trial revived him in the sense that, for the Serbs, he is a person who is showing the West, the world, something of the way people here felt about what happened."
Chief war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte is quoted as saying she is happy with the first phase of the trial. Indeed, most legal experts agree that prosecutors have provided sufficient evidence that Serbian forces committed systematic atrocities and of the key role Milosevic played in the wars.

Judith Armatta works for the Coalition for International Justice, an independent group that is monitoring the trial. "I think [prosecutors] have done a very good job of proving the crime base of their case," she told RFE/RL. "As for Milosevic's personal responsibility for it, there has been very credible evidence to show that he was really the major player in the Balkans in the decade throughout the 1990s."

Armatta believes the prosecution has proven that, at the time, Milosevic controlled Serbian and Yugoslav institutions and that, together with Croatian and Bosnian Serbs, he instigated the wars that occurred there. Recordings of telephone conversations between Milosevic and his allies, including Bosnian Serb wartime leaders, made for compelling evidence.

When it comes to the charge of genocide, however, experts say the case is less clear. Prosecutors have to prove not only that genocide occurred in Bosnia but also that Milosevic had the intent to commit genocide.

Armatta says it appears they have failed to present enough evidence to prove such intent. "From the evidence that we have seen in public sessions, I have not seen [genocide] proven. It is very specific intent to show -- they would have to show that Milosevic really wanted to have the Bosnian Muslims destroyed in whole or in part, and there is no evidence in public session that shows that," Armatta said.

A number of court sessions have been held behind closed doors, however, and witness testimonies have not been made public.

Armatta adds that prosecutors have presented what she described as "significant evidence" to prove the related charge of complicity to genocide, showing that as early as 1993 Milosevic was aware of the danger that Bosnian Serbs may commit genocide against the country's Muslims.

If found guilty of the charges, the 62-year-old Milosevic could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The trial had been expected to wrap up by 2005. Now, it seems, proceedings may drag on for years after that date. Progress has been delayed due to the complexity of the case, the staggering number of potential witnesses and relevant documents, and Milosevic's poor health. The prosecution had been due to end its case today, but that has been postponed until next week because Milosevic is suffering from an undisclosed illness. It's the 14th such delay since the trial began.

Armatta says court proceedings could continue beyond 2008, when the war crimes tribunal itself is slated to conclude its work. "We can anticipate that the trial itself would be completed in 2005," she said. "With appeal proceedings, it could go on to 2008. And I have recently been informed by the president of the tribunal that the tribunal will continue sitting on appeals until 2010."

After the prosecution ends, the court will adjourn for at least three months, after which Milosevic -- who is defending himself -- will start presenting his case. He has said he intends to summon an impressive list of witnesses to give evidence, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Despite his poor health, Milosevic seems to be enjoying the public platform the trial affords him. Serbian media report that interest in the case is waning, yet Milosevic still enjoys a large audience at home, where the tribunal is widely seen as politicized and biased against Serbs. Some Serbian leaders have even blamed the tribunal's relentless pressure on Belgrade to hand over Serbian war crimes suspects for the ultranationalists' gains in Serbia's recent presidential and parliamentary elections.

Belgrade journalist Ljiljana Smajlovic, who has been covering court proceedings for the weekly "NIN," recently told RFE/RL that the trial has given Milosevic a new lease on political life, albeit not as a leader. "The trial has revived Milosevic, because before his arrest and handover, politically, he had become a completely irrelevant person in Serbia," Smajlovic said. "No one was interested any longer in anything he had to say. The last elections showed that he has not been given new life as a political leader. This will not change. It will never happen again. Yet, the trial revived him in the sense that, for the Serbs, he is a person who is showing the West, the world, something of the way people here felt about what happened."

Srdja Popovic, a respected Belgrade lawyer, believes that -- despite Serbian resentment toward the war crimes tribunal -- Milosevic's popularity is unlikely to increase any further when he begins his defense. In fact, he says, just the opposite may happen. "I do not think [his popularity] will grow, because prosecutors' arguments were more galling [to Serbs] than Milosevic's defense [will be]," he said. "I also believe that something unexpected will happen. Fabricated evidence will be made public. False witnesses will be brought to the court -- all those who are willing for whatever reason to defend him. And the world will see that. And all will see that there is something wrong with that evidence."

(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)