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Yugoslavia: Milosevic Launches Long-Delayed Defense At War Crimes Trial

  • Eugen Tomiuc

http://gdb.rferl.org/5D7426D9-C73F-4A8C-8C45-7F09AE2170C6_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/5D7426D9-C73F-4A8C-8C45-7F09AE2170C6_mw800_mh600.jpg Slobodan Milosevic (file photo) Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic opened his long-delayed defense case today at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague by calling the accusations against him "unscrupulous lies." Milosevic -- who faces life in jail if found guilty -- is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes in connection with the 1990s conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Milosevic has also been charged with genocide and complicity in genocide for the war in Bosnia that left some 200,000 people dead. In his opening statement, Milosevic also accused the international community of being "the main force for the destruction of Yugoslavia." As RFE/RL reports, the start of Milosevic's defense case, originally set for April, has been delayed five times because of his recurrent health problems.

Prague, 31 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In his opening defense statement today, Milosevic, the first head of state to stand trial before an international tribunal, denounced the accusations against him as a "distortion of history."

"Accusations brought against me are unscrupulous, manipulated lies, crippling of the law, a defeat of morals, and a completely irresponsible distortion of history. Everything has been turned upside down in order to protect from responsibility those who are truly responsible for the tragic events," he said.

The 63-year-old Milosevic faces a total of 66 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the 1991-95 war in Croatia, the 1992-95 civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Kosovo conflict in 1998-99. He has also been charged with genocide and complicity in genocide, the gravest of war crimes, for the Bosnian war, which left 200,000 people dead.
"There is a fundamental historical fact that one should proceed from [the beginning] when seeking to understand what led to everything that happened in Yugoslavia from 1991 until today, and that is the violent destruction of a European state, Yugoslavia, which originated from the statehood of Serbia, the only ally of the democratic world in that part of the world over the past two centuries."


Milosevic, who is acting as his own lawyer, said the international community was "the main force for the destruction" of Yugoslavia. "There is a fundamental historical fact that one should proceed from [the beginning] when seeking to understand what led to everything that happened in Yugoslavia from 1991 until today, and that is the violent destruction of a European state, Yugoslavia, which originated from the statehood of Serbia, the only ally of the democratic world in that part of the world over the past two centuries," he said.

Milosevic also blamed NATO for the conflict in Kosovo, a province of Serbia where more than 10,000 people died and about 800,000 ethnic Albanians were expelled in 1998 and 1999.

Milosevic told the court today that he needs more than the 150 days given to him to cross-examine the some 1,000 witnesses he has said he intends to call to the stand. Milosevic also demanded two days to present the outlines of his defense case, instead of the four hours given to him. But Judge Patrick Robinson ordered Milosevic to proceed, noting the defense case has repeatedly been delayed.

From its beginning in February 2002, the trial has been marked by numerous interruptions and postponements caused by Milosevic's precarious state of health. The trial has been adjourned 14 times in total, with the defense case alone being postponed five times since April, when doctors determined that Milosevic's blood pressure was dangerously high.

On 6 July, after the fifth delay in the opening of the defense case, Judge Robinson said the trial needed a "radical review" in light of Milosevic's health.

The prosecution has urged the court to appoint a defense lawyer to act for Milosevic. They accuse him of "hijacking the trial to his agenda while stopping just short of obstructionism." But lawyers Steven Kay and Gillian Higgins, appointed to ensure Milosevic gets a fair trial, have warned that it would only add more stress if he were forced to take on a defense lawyer against his will.

Jim Landale, a tribunal spokesman, told journalists today that the court must balance the rights of the accused against the interests of justice. "The judges have to decide what the appropriate next step is in the future conduct of the trial. Whether it's appropriate at this juncture to decide to impose defense counsel on Mr. Milosevic in some form, or to decide that his interests and his assertion that he wants to represent himself override that. So the judges will be having to balance his rights, the rights of the accused, against the interests of justice," Landale said.

Some critics say the trial delays are only harming the pursuit of justice in the Balkan wars. But other analysts argue that, although the trial is complex and difficult, it is progressing fairly and efficiently.

Bogdan Ivanisevic, a researcher for the rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, said both the highest professional standards and the rights of the accused must be observed. "The success or failure of the trial can be measured by the extent to which the judges and the prosecutors are acting independently and are upholding professional standards and the extent to which the rights of the accused are respected.," he said. "That's what a criminal trial is about, and the Milosevic trial is not an exception."

Ivanisevic said the tribunal's main task -- to provide justice for the victims and their families in the former Yugoslavia -- is being accomplished "slowly but surely."

Although he defends himself in the courtroom, Milosevic is assisted by a team of Yugoslav lawyers who prepare interviews with potential witnesses and help him study thousands of pages of documents filed by prosecutors. The first defense witness will be called on 7 September, but the court has not revealed who it will be.

For full coverage of Slobodan Milosevic's trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, see RFE/RL's webpage "Milosevic on Trial".
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