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Yugoslavia: Milosevic Displays Flair For Cross-Examination, But Is He Mounting Effective Defense?

  • Alexandra Poolos

A survivor of atrocities committed in Kosovo took the stand today for a second time in the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Despite Milosevic's failure to recognize the legitimacy of the UN tribunal, he has played an active role in his defense since the start of his trial on 12 February. Displaying sharp legal skills, Milosevic has launched what observers say have been focused and thorough attacks against testimony by the first three prosecution witnesses.

Prague, 21 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Slobodan Milosevic raised his hand in frustration today when one of his alleged victims was excused from court before the former Yugoslav president was able to complete his cross-examination.

Agim Zeqiri, an ethnic Albanian farmer and the first criminal witness at Milosevic's trial, told Judge Richard May that he felt too ill to continue with his testimony. Milosevic reacted strongly, saying it was "impermissible" to allow Zeqiri to leave the courtroom.

The two men faced off for the first time yesterday, when Zeqiri accused Serbian forces of slaughtering 16 members of his family during a raid on the ethnic Albanian village of Celine on 25 March 1999, the day after NATO's air campaign started.

Sitting with his back turned to Milosevic, Zeqiri recounted how he had hidden in a ditch during the raid and eventually fled to Albania. He says he didn't discover the fate of his family, including that of his wife, four daughters, and a son, until weeks after the raid. Zeqiri says he was also beaten by Serb police and soldiers and is still in dialysis treatment for a damaged kidney.

During their intense half-hour standoff yesterday, Milosevic tried to discredit Zeqiri's testimony, asking the farmer whether he was aware of Kosovo Liberation Army activity in his village.

Natasha Kandic, the head of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, says that by focusing on the activities of rebels in Kosovo, Milosevic is trying to justify the actions of Serbian forces.

"Milosevic's strategy is to show that UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) were everywhere using the civilians. But [while] he succeeded in showing [that in] some villages the UCK were there, he will not succeed in proving that they killed people and [that] mass murders were legal killings during the fighting. Because there is much evidence -- and even based on our investigation -- it's clear that Serbian forces captured the civilians. The civilians were without weapons and after that, as prisoners they were killed. And it is the same pattern everywhere."

But Kandic says Milosevic's skillful cross-examinations of all three prosecution witnesses who have taken the stand this week have demonstrated his knowledge of the law and his determination to undermine the foundation of the trial, in which he is charged with genocide in Bosnia and crimes against humanity for the wars in Croatia and Kosovo.

Milosevic has a degree in law from the University of Belgrade but never practiced. He has chosen to represent himself at The Hague-based tribunal.

Already, tribunal judges have refused to hear testimony from the prosecution's leading Kosovo investigator, calling it hearsay.

And the trial's first witness, Albanian politician and former Communist Party leader Mahmut Bakalli, was effectively challenged by the combative Milosevic in a four-hour cross-examination earlier this week.

Bakalli testified that a Serbian secret police agent had told him about a Serbian plan to wipe out 700 Albanian villages as part of a so-called "scorched-earth" policy. But when Milosevic cross-examined his former party comrade, he asked him why he had never raised the alleged plan if he thought it was "genuine" during their meetings in the late 1990s.

Milosevic also pressed Bakalli on his current links with the Kosovo Liberation Army and what Milosevic called terrorist attacks on Serbs in the province. Bakalli protested these accusations, saying Milosevic had "killed civilians" in Kosovo.

On the surface, Milosevic seemed to have trumped the prosecution's first witness. But Kandic says the real point of the cross-examination was that Milosevic didn't deny that he knew about the killing of civilians in Kosovo.

"Milosevic said to [Bakalli] that civilians had two hours to escape their homes [during a Serb crackdown in Kosovo in the late 1990s]. I think that was the main point of the accusation, that Milosevic knew about the killings, but he didn't take measures in accordance with international laws and standards to try everything to order the police to do everything not to kill women and children."

Richard Dicker, the head of the international justice department at Human Rights Watch, says Milosevic's active defense proves he is receiving a fair trial.

"What I've seen is a very forceful, aggressive cross-examination aimed at chipping away at the witnesses' credibility and attempting to raise questions about the witnesses' accuracy. And what I draw from that is the point that this is exactly what trials are about. This is justice in motion here."

Dicker explains that Milosevic is being given every opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and "shake whatever weight" their testimony might have. Dicker calls this the "hallmark" of the fair trial process.

But despite the "sound and fury" of Milosevic's cross-examination style, Dicker says he may not have achieved very much in terms of actually advancing his defense.

"There was a lot of drama, but in terms of undermining the essential points the witness made, I didn't see Slobodan Milosevic being that effective in terms of casting doubt on the state of apartheid, which is the term that Mr. Bakalli used to describe the situation for Kosovar Albanians in the late 1980s when Slobodan Milosevic came into power."

Dicker says Milosevic's early courtroom tactics of aggressively attacking so-called "insider" witnesses may have another equally important purpose: to send a message to future such witnesses.

"The effect of the cross-examination [thus far] is, I think, Milosevic must be very clearly focusing on the other potential insider witnesses in trying to send a signal that, 'If you're thinking of coming to this court to give testimony [against] me, let me make very clear to you that I'm going to grill you and make you look bad.' My sense is those who are coming from Belgrade know Milosevic well enough to know that he's not a choirboy or a pussycat."

But Dicker says those who are planning to testify against Milosevic could only have expected such a performance this week. "If they know Milosevic as a former associate," Dicker said, "they know his nature and know what kinds of tricks and demagoguery he's capable of."

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