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Yugoslavia: Milosevic Trial Set To Begin Second Phase After Long, Turbulent First Chapter

By Ulpiana Lama-Ilirjana Bajo

The war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic resumes on 26 September after a two-week recess. The new proceedings will focus on conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia, including a charge of genocide, after prosecutors closed the chapter on Kosovo. RFE/RL correspondents Ulpiana Lama and Ilirjana Bajo speak to analysts, who assess how the trial has gone so far.

Prague, 24 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During the past seven months, prosecutors in the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Milosevic have examined 320 pieces of evidence and called 125 witnesses to testify about atrocities allegedly committed under Milosevic's authority in Kosovo in 1999.

The prosecution at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague began presenting its case on 18 February, five days after the start of the trial. Many of the 66 counts of war crimes with which Milosevic is charged involve the alleged murder of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serb Interior Ministry forces. Up to 10,000 civilians are alleged to have been killed by Serb forces in Kosovo during the 78-day NATO bombing campaign that sought to expel Serb forces from the province.

Milosevic is defending himself after declining to enter a plea. He says he does not recognize the legitimacy of the court, which he has called a farce. Judges entered pleas of not guilty for him. The first part of the trial, focusing on crimes committed in Kosovo, ended on 11 September. The proceedings resume on 26 September, with the focus now switching to Milosevic's role in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts.

Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for chief UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, says the prosecution believes it has accomplished its task so far: "No parties in a trial should comment on the trial. We had to do a specific job, which was to present evidence against Milosevic [about Kosovo], and we believe that we achieved this work."

Judith Armatta works for the Coalition for International Justice (CIJ), a non-profit organization that supports the international war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. She acknowledges that some analysts have not impressed by the prosecution's case against Milosevic, but she believes that, in the end, the job got done.

"But when you look at the whole thing, it turned out to have proven the points that they made in the indictment: that there were massive crimes that occurred across Kosovo, that those crimes were part of a major plan, a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the civilian population. They could only have happened with approval and planning at the highest possible level, and that highest possible level points to Mr. Milosevic," Armatta says.

In his cross-examination of witnesses, Milosevic tried to prove that the West had caused the breakup of Yugoslavia; that actions in Kosovo were part of Belgrade's legitimate police action against terrorists; that after NATO bombing commenced, Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were exercising their legitimate rights to defend themselves against outside aggression; and that massacres, such as the 45 people killed at Racak in January 1999, were fabricated.

The trial's first witness in February was Mahmut Bakalli, the former Communist leader of Kosovo. Bakalli recalls his time on the stand: "I was the first witness against Milosevic, with all the risks that testifying against a dictator generates. For instance, I had neither my testimony, nor a paper or a pen. On the other hand, Milosevic had a great amount of footnotes from his staff in Belgrade to defend himself. Later, the court rectified this deficiency. From his part, Milosevic tried to play the dictator, even from the prisoner's dock."

Armatta of the CIJ confirms that witnesses have been frustrated, and that improvements need to be made: "I think there needs to be some improvement, particularly in protection of witnesses. Mr. Milosevic does a couple of things: One, he is abusive to them on the stand, and two, he also -- when there were protected witnesses at various times -- he discloses facts about them that could jeopardize them. So it really takes two things: It takes vigilance by the court and a willingness to jump in and interrupt that, and it takes also participation by the prosecution in that kind of objection. I think over the course of the Kosovo trial, the court has become more active and also the prosecution has [become more active], in stepping in and saying, 'That will be enough, Mr. Milosevic. You can't do that.' I think there can certainly be some improvement that way."

Armatta says she believes the prosecution has proven that Milosevic was at the top of the chain of command in Kosovo and bears responsibility for the crimes committed in the province.

Bernard Fischer is professor of Balkans history at Indiana University in the U.S. He agrees with Armatta on Milosevic's culpability: "In terms of establishing command responsibility, I think [the prosecution] did reasonably well. The case against Milosevic, I think, is a strong one. I would suggest that there is a very good chance that Milosevic will be convicted. Less so, of course, for Bosnia and Croatia. But in the case of Kosovo, I would predict that he would be convicted."

Nevertheless, Fischer says he has not been impressed with how the trial has been organized and conducted: "First of all, there was a problem with the structure. I think the court perhaps should have spent a little bit more time prior to beginning this process organizing -- determining, for example, how long the process would take. I think the prosecution, to a certain extent, was taken by surprise when its time was limited in terms of collecting evidence. Another problem, I think, is simply gaining support from the world as a whole, as to whether or not this process might have some positive impact in the long run. They might have done a little bit more in the way of public relations, which they did very little of."

Fischer gives credit to Milosevic for his sophisticated cross-examination of witnesses. He notes that Milosevic's performance at the trial is increasing his status among ordinary Serbs as a hero who is being attacked by the West: "If the intent of this trial was to convince the Serbian people that they bear some responsibility for what happened in Kosovo, it is not working at all. As a matter of fact, I think possibly the opposite is taking place."

Fischer suggests that to succeed in the next stages, the prosecution should present more substantial evidence and call witnesses with more authority.

UN war crimes prosecution spokeswoman Hartmann confirms that the prosecution is considering calling more high-ranking witnesses: "The trial is not finished. That's very important. Only one chapter [is finished], and as in a book, you can come back on the initial story later on in the book. And it is exactly the same in this trial. We started with Kosovo, but we can come back to Kosovo later on through witnesses who can legitimate their testimonies later because they will speak on Croatia and Bosnia and speak also on Kosovo."

One of the first witnesses expected to testify in the trial's next phase is Croatian President Stjepan Mesic. Mesic told Reuters in 2001 that he is prepared to tell the tribunal how Serb nationalists, orchestrated by Milosevic, usurped power in the collective presidency of Federal Yugoslavia, which disintegrated in 1991.