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2001 In Review: The Year Milosevic Was Sent To The Hague

  • Alexandra Poolos

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia scored its biggest success ever this year when former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was transferred to The Hague-based court in June. Milosevic now faces three separate indictments for alleged war crimes committed in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at the significance of the transfer and the prospects for a trial or trials next year.

Prague, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Slobodan Milosevic remains defiant after nearly six months in detention at the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

From his first appearance before the tribunal in July to his most recent hearing in early December, the former Serbian and, later, Yugoslav president has consistently rejected the legitimacy of the court and has refused to cooperate with it. He alleges the tribunal is a political tool of the NATO alliance.

Milosevic faces three indictments related to crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo in the 1990s when the former Yugoslavia broke apart and Milosevic allegedly orchestrated a scheme to create a "Greater Serbia." Among the charges is genocide, the most serious crime the court can prosecute.

In his most recent appearance before the tribunal, to hear an indictment for the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Milosevic derided the charges as an "absurdity."

"I would like to say to you that what we have just heard, this tragic text [the indictment] is a supreme absurdity," Milosevic said. "I should be given credit for peace in Bosnia, not for war. The responsibility for the war in Bosnia is with the forces who broke up Yugoslavia and their agents in Yugoslavia, not the Serbs or Serbian policies."

That statement is not very different from his initial remarks to the tribunal in July: "I consider this tribunal [to be] a false tribunal and indictments [to be] false indictments. It is illegal, being not appointed by [the] UN General Assembly, so I have no need to appoint counsel to [an] illegal organ."

The first Milosevic trial is expected sometime early next year. It's not clear whether the tribunal will hold more than one trial. The prosecution is pressing for a joint trial for all three indictments, arguing the crimes committed in the three conflicts are similar and related.

But judges seem unwilling to hold a single trial and note that, although Milosevic's role was similar in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, the conflict in Kosovo happened later and under different circumstances.

Now, Milosevic could face a first trial for Kosovo as early as February. Another trial for the other two indictments could take place by next summer.

Milosevic's downfall began more than a year ago when a democratic coalition united to oust him from the Yugoslav presidency. But Milosevic's transfer to The Hague took another nine months as Yugoslavia's newly elected democratic leaders squabbled over whether the UN tribunal had jurisdiction over the former president.

In the end, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a nationalist who heavily criticized the tribunal as a political tool, lost the battle to Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who had his eye on the Western economic and political support tied to Milosevic's transfer.

For the tribunal, formed in 1993 to prosecute war crimes committed in the Yugoslav wars, the transfer was immensely important. According to tribunal spokesman James Landau: "The transfer of Slobodan Milosevic to the tribunal during the summer was an immensely important moment in the life of this institution. I think it sent out a very strong message that no matter what position an individual might once have held, they cannot expect to be above the law. For quite some time, I think people thought that Slobodan Milosevic was beyond the reach of the tribunal. His detention and subsequent transfer proved that was not the case."

Landau says evidence for the trial will consist of testimony from both experts and victims. There will also be what Landau calls "insider" testimony -- a hint that Milosevic's former colleagues may present evidence.

Landau says the upcoming trial or trials will serve as a basis for Yugoslavia's historical record: "The trials that will now take place at the tribunal for Slobodan Milosevic -- the first trial will be for Kosovo, and then there'll be a joint trial for Croatia and Bosnia at some later stage -- will again be very important for the tribunal. I think they will be scrutinized around the world and, specifically, obviously, by the victims of the many crimes that were committed, which Slobodan Milosevic is alleged to be responsible for. So I think the tribunal is aware that the eyes of the world [are] on its work, especially with regard to Slobodan Milosevic. And the tribunal is very keen to have transparent and fair trials."

The procedures will be scrutinized around the world, but it's unclear whether Serbia will be watching. Experts say many Serbs have moved on and see Milosevic as a man of the past. Even Kostunica, who strongly protested Milosevic's transfer to the UN tribunal, is preoccupied with more pressing political developments. Kostunica and Djindjic are locked in a battle over the development of Yugoslavia and Serbia, with a government breakup growing increasingly likely.

Serbian political analyst Vladimir Goati says it's natural that Milosevic has stepped out of the spotlight in Serbia. He says Serbian citizens are not all that interested in Milosevic's trial because, as he puts it, "If you are not present in politics, you are forgotten."

"The interest in the fate and destiny of Mr. Milosevic in this trial is not so high. Maybe I expected that the political interest in the trial would be much higher," Goati said. "Nowadays, many people, I believe, have forgotten what happened with Milosevic. Milosevic, for many, many people nowadays is someone who belongs to the past."

The past is a touchy subject for Serbs. This year, when an internationally acclaimed documentary on the Bosnian war was shown on Serbian television, the station received a tremendous amount of criticism from viewers who could not believe the documentary's implications that Serbs were behind the atrocities.

Under Milosevic, the media was a powerful tool used to control domestic opinion and misrepresent the wars. While there were independent news organizations attempting to provide more factual information, most people got their news from state-controlled television and newspapers. Goati says Milosevic's legacy of media control is still in effect in Serbia. But he believes the upcoming trials can act as a vehicle to set the historical record straight: "[It is necessary] to force the big, official newspapers to publish the real story. To press them [to do this]. It could be very useful for democracy in Serbia."

Goati says the real pressure for a national reckoning must come from Serbia's leadership. He says the government must take the Milosevic trials and their implications seriously if officials wish to put the country on secure footing for the future.

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