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Yugoslavia: War Crimes Tribunal To Decide On One Trial Or Two For Milosevic

  • Alexandra Poolos

A five-member appeals panel at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia heard a motion yesterday requesting that the three indictments against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic be heard in a single trial. Prosecutors seeking a single trial said top witnesses who were once close to Milosevic might not be able to testify more than once. The lawyers also argued that the cases should be merged because the crimes -- in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia -- were part of a general plan to create a greater Serbian state.

Prague, 31 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Slobodan Milosevic faces three indictments containing 66 separate war crimes charges, including genocide, stemming from close to a decade of conflict in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. If the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague finds Milosevic guilty of any one charge, the former Yugoslav president could face life imprisonment.

Milosevic's trial for crimes against humanity in Kosovo is due to open on 12 February, but an appeals court is now deciding whether to try Milosevic on all three indictments at once. A panel yesterday heard the prosecution's arguments for overriding a previous court decision to hold two separate trials -- one for crimes committed in Kosovo and one for crimes in both Bosnia and Croatia. A decision is expected by the weekend.

The tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, says the three indictments should be joined because Milosevic had a plan to create a greater Serbia, which motivated all of his alleged crimes during the Balkan wars.

"The overall scheme, the overall plan, of defendant Milosevic, which was already apparent in 1989, was the creation of a predominantly Serb state dominated by Belgrade. The acts, the behavior, the attitude of the defendant during that period, which is also very important, demonstrate that everything was being prepared for the Kosovo conflict."

Del Ponte said the prosecution will call to the stand former insiders from the Milosevic regime. There are fears these witnesses will not be able to return to The Hague to testify again if the trials are held separately.

For the first time in his six tribunal appearances, Milosevic was allowed to speak at length yesterday. In his remarks, he signaled once again that he will defend himself at his trial. Since Milosevic was transferred to The Hague last June, he has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court and has declined any legal representation. The tribunal previously appointed international lawyers to help Milosevic represent himself, known as "amici curiae" or "friends of the court."

During his 30-minute address to the court, Milosevic asked to be set free, promising to return to fight the charges against him.

"What I want from you is that I want to be freed. I demand to be released and given freedom, because it is clear to the whole world that I won't run from the battle being waged against my country and my nation, and I have no intention of running away."

Milosevic called the counts against him "abnormal and nonsensical." He said his goal while in power was to protect Serbs and bring peace to the republics of Yugoslavia.

A decision to hold one wide-ranging trial would be a boost to the prosecution, which reportedly has strong evidence against Milosevic from the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Del Ponte's office says it also has ample evidence for the Kosovo case, but reports say the prosecution's case in Kosovo is weaker, based largely on testimony from Western officials and from ethnic Albanian victims.

Richard Dickers is a legal expert with the influential monitoring group Human Rights Watch. He says the prosecution has presented an adequate legal argument to hold one trial and that one trial would make the proceedings more "judicially efficient." But Dickers says it will be difficult to overturn an earlier court decision that the three indictments do not constitute a single "transaction."

Dickers discounts the reports that say the Kosovo case against Milosevic is weaker than the other two indictments.

"On paper, the Kosovo trial presents a clearer picture for the prosecution than perhaps the Bosnia or Croatia trial does, in that the chain of command between Milosevic and those on the ground carrying out the crimes against humanity -- at least on paper -- is clearer in the Kosovo indictment than it is in the other two. Nonetheless, the prosecution does have a real burden in any case where its theory of liability or culpability rests on command responsibility. That is, Milosevic knew or should have known what the Serbian interior police were doing and took no steps to stop it."

Dickers says he doesn't know the particular witnesses the prosecution will call to testify against Milosevic. But he says he's sure insiders close to the Milosevic regime will appear at The Hague.

"I do think, however, that given the changes in Yugoslavia, they will be able to produce witnesses who had been on the inside with Mr. Milosevic, so to speak, and since October 2000 or before have subsequently come to view events in a very different way and would be willing to provide evidence."

Whether Milosevic faces one trial or two, Dickers says, the proceedings will be unprecedented, both in terms of the stakes involved as well as for Milosevic's refusal to accept the court's legitimacy. He says the proceedings will certainly be a "circus" and will present a challenge to the tribunal's judges, who must ensure the trial is both fair and reasonably efficient.