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Yugoslavia: Milosevic Trial To Get Under Way

  • Jolyon Naegele

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic goes on trial tomorrow before the UN's international war crimes tribunal at The Hague. The trial could last two years or longer. Milosevic faces charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and violations of the laws and customs of war in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, Milosevic is the first former head of state to stand trial before an international criminal court on charges of having committed war crimes while in office.

Prague, 11 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since his first pre-trial hearing at the UN's international war crimes tribunal in the Hague in July, Slobodan Milosevic has made it repeatedly clear he does not recognize the court.

"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," he said.

Tribunal Judge Richard May repeatedly interrupted Milosevic's attempts to explain his position and told the former Yugoslav president he would have plenty of time to challenge the tribunal's legitimacy.

That time will come tomorrow, when Milosevic's trial for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes officially gets under way.

The first day is expected to be taken up by a statement from Milosevic to the court. Dragoslav Ognjanovic, one of the former president's legal advisers, predicted Milosevic will take full advantage of the platform and an international television audience.

"He [Milosevic] is very strong in his main strategy. It means that he is not going to recognize that court and he is not going to defend himself by the rules of this tribunal, but he is going to use the court to say everything he knows about the truth and he is going to call many former and present politicians to invite them [to speak] in front of this tribunal," Ognjanovic said.

The prosecution is reportedly not yet fully prepared to start the trial and was said to have been taken aback when the court set 12 February rather than sometime later in the year for the start of the proceedings. The prosecution still has not delivered about one-third of the depositions of the 90 witnesses from Kosovo, allegedly due to translation problems.

The trial is expected to last about two years, but another one of Milosevic's legal advisers, Zdenko Tomanovic, said prosecutors will move to postpone the trial to give them more time to prepare.

"I expect that the trial will be adjourned soon, because the prosecution is trying, by all means, to hide its unpreparedness to conduct the trial. After the decision about [combining all the charges into] a single trial, the prosecutor secured more maneuvering space, but I expect that the process will be adjourned soon," Tomanovic said. "The excuse could be that, following the prosecutor's request, someone else from the Kosovo [indictment] list is handed over to the tribunal by Belgrade. So the prosecutor could use that to adjourn Milosevic's trial with the excuse of needing time to prepare the trial against that person. I have absolutely no doubt that we will witness that."

Milosevic was indicted in May 1999 together with four other senior Yugoslav and Serb officials: General Dragoljub Ojdanic, former Interior Minister Vlajko Stojilkovic, security chief Nikola Sainovic, and Serbia's current president, Milan Milutinovic.

All four are still at large.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic yesterday responded to questions by an RFE/RL reporter about whether his government would meet a 31 March deadline for handing over the four other indicted officials.

"Those people who are indicted -- one has to do a service to the nation. They have to take off the noose [from around the neck of the nation], because we have other problems. It certainly would be much worse if once again this were to become a pre-condition for normalizing our relations with the world," Djindjic said.

Djindjic said it is only a technical question whether the four will be handed over on 31 March or before. Their transfer would probably result in the court adjourning the trial to enable the prosecutors to prepare.

Djindjic conceded that handing over Serbian President Milutinovic presents some legal difficulties: "I've always said the president of Serbia is the president of Serbia. He is in a position of exemption. Perhaps someone can set in motion a procedure for resolving this. The constitution doesn't define how it is done. As long as he is president of Serbia, he has immunity and I think there is no discussion about this; he is excluded. As far as the others are concerned, I don't see any major gain for them by waiting this out. I mean there's no point in fighting The Hague tribunal. Rather they should jump in the cold water and realize that they can swim in it -- for themselves and for us."

To convict Milosevic, the prosecution will have to prove a single criminal conspiracy to persecute non-Serbs in Croatia in 1991-94, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992-95, and Kosovo in 1998-99 as part of an effort to establish a "Greater Serbia."

Over 200,000 people lost their lives and more than 3 million people were forced to flee their homes in a decade of fighting in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

The Kosovo indictment, delivered in May 1999, is expected to occupy the first part of the trial. In Kosovo, Milosevic is accused of trying to rid the province of its ethnic-Albanian majority.

In early February, the prosecution won an appeal to combine the Kosovo indictment with indictments for Croatia and Bosnia on grounds the crimes are all linked to a single strategy of establishing a unified Greater Serbia by killing or expelling non-Serb populations.

Correspondents said the prosecution may have an easier time of proving Milosevic's direct connection to the Kosovo crimes than to crimes committed in Croatia or Bosnia. Kosovo was a Yugoslav province at the time. Croatia and Bosnia, on the other hand, had declared independence by the time of the fighting and local Serb rebel forces, albeit with help from Belgrade, took over the task of suppression from the Yugoslav Army.

Kosovo was Milosevic's ladder to power as much as it proved in the end to lead to his downfall. Milosevic used Serbian nationalism as a tool to gain and maintain power, such as a massive celebration at which more than 1 million Serbs marked the 600th anniversary of the Serb-led Christian defeat by the Ottoman Turks on the Field of Blackbirds -- Kosovo Polje -- and in effect told Kosovo's Albanian majority that this was, after all, Serbia.

"Today, six centuries later, we are again engaged in battles and stand before battles, not armed battles, although such things cannot yet be excluded. But regardless of whether they are [armed], they cannot win the battles without determination, bravery and self-sacrifice, without these qualities which so long ago were present on the Field of Blackbirds," Milosevic said.

Milosevic capitulated to NATO after a 78-day bombing campaign in the spring of 1999. Milosevic's reputation suffered as a result of the capitulation, leading to his electoral defeat in September 2000.

On 28 June 2001 -- on the 12th anniversary of his Kosovo Polje speech and on the 10th anniversary of the day he sent Yugoslav tanks into Croatia following Zagreb's declaration of independence -- Serb authorities placed Milosevic in the custody of Hague tribunal officials.

The tribunal so far has indicted 80 people for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and related atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic is among 67 accused who have faced the tribunal thus far. The tribunal has tried 31 Serbs, Croats, and Bosniak Muslims and has acquitted five.

An editorial in "The New York Times" today bills the Milosevic trial as "the most important war crimes trial in Europe since Nuremberg" at the end of the second world war.

Other international news media point out that this will be the first time a former head of state will stand trial in an international court for war crimes.

But not entirely. Among those tried for war crimes at Nuremberg after World War II was Admiral Karl Doenitz, who led Nazi Germany in the final days of the war after Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin.