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An Inside Account Of Milosevic's Unfinished Trial

  • Gordana Knezevic

One of the book's conclusions is that Milosevic's decision to represent himself in the trial did him no favors, and frequently undermined his denials of guilt.

One of the book's conclusions is that Milosevic's decision to represent himself in the trial did him no favors, and frequently undermined his denials of guilt.

The late Serbian ex-President Slobodan Milosevic died of a suspected heart attack in his prison cell on March 11, 2006, less than two months before his trial at The Hague war crimes tribunal was set to conclude.

Nevenka Tromp, the principal researcher on the team prosecuting Milosevic before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the time for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, has revisited evidence from that trial to determine what this massive store of documents can tell us -- about the man and his role in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The result is her book Prosecuting Slobodan Milosevic: The Unfinished Trial (Routledge, 2016).

The trial produced an extensive archive of testimony, expert reports, and other evidence. It lasted 467 days, creating almost 50,000 pages of transcripts and 5,759 exhibits of evidence. Yet there was no conclusion, no verdict.

"His death was by no means entirely unexpected. His ill-health was well-known and his medical condition was not helped by his choice to represent himself in court. Acting as his own advocate, he had read, watched, and listened to every piece of evidence presented against him," says Tromp, who is currently a lecturer in Eastern European studies at the University of Amsterdam.

She says of her return to The Hague tribunal's archive for a six-year investigation in her new role as academic, "I narrowed my examination of the trial record to the exploration of three major topics: the leader, the ideology, and the plan."

Tromp's book notes the high expectations at the start of Milosevic's trial and the bitter disappointment when it ended prematurely as a result of the defendant's death. Such dismay is arguably highest among survivors and victims' families hoping to learn why the atrocities had occurred and who was ultimately responsible. Nearly two decades after the Yugoslav wars (1991-99), there is no entirely conclusive answer to those questions.

Many Serbs still believe that the unfinished trial and the absence of a guilty verdict are sufficient proof that Milosevic was not responsible for the destruction of Yugoslavia or the mass atrocities. In August, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic gleefully latched onto claims that The Hague tribunal's verdict in the case of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic also exonerated Milosevic of charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Milutin Mrkonjic, another old associate and member of Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party, even called for the erection of a monument to their former leader. "We all knew that Milosevic was not guilty. He should get a street [named after him] and a monument in Belgrade. I'm going to make that demand at his grave, on his birthday, August 20," Mrkonjic told reporters in Belgrade.

This was just one of a number of attempts to rehabilitate Milosevic, his policies, and his role in the wars of the 1990s, which the country has never truly come to terms with.

Claims that Milosevic had been exonerated by the UN court became a hot topic in Serbia following the publication of an article on Russian state broadcaster RT's website that quoted a previous article by Andy Wilcoxson on a pro-Milosevic portal. That piece, in turn, was based on a highly tendentious reading of a single passage in a verdict of 2,500-odd pages.

His Own Worst Advocate

In her book, Tromp argues that all the evidence gathered in the course of a trial for mass atrocities -- regardless of whether or not it is brought to a conclusion -- establishes a record of past events, contributes to the interpretation of a historical period, and influences a shaping of collective memory.

With admirable clarity and attention to detail, Tromp takes the reader inside Hague courtrooms, through the maze of legal, political, and historical aspects of a complex case.

One of her conclusions is that Milosevic's decision to represent himself in the trial did him no favors, and frequently undermined his denials of guilt.

Tromp cites the court's viewing of a video recording from a Kula concentration camp of a 1997 celebration in honor of the so-called Red Berets, a Serbian paramilitary unit deployed in the Croatian war. The video remains one of the prosecution's strongest pieces of evidence against Milosevic. It shows Milosevic listening without complaint to speeches that detail the crimes committed by the Serbian Red Berets in 1991. He knew that this constituted evidence of his complicity that he could neither justify nor explain. Yet Milosevic could not refrain from noting that the commander of the Red Berets was wrong about the date of the unit's creation.

The video -- and Milosevic's reaction to it in the courtroom -- suggest that by May 1991 the Serbian state was financing the Red Berets and was fully aware of the nature of the paramilitary unit's operations. This involved the use of paramilitary force in Croatia and Bosnia with the apparent objective of carrying out ethnic cleansing through mass violence.

According to Tromp, a lawyer would have advised Milosevic to say nothing. Instead, he appeared to reveal the extent of his own knowledge of, and role in, a criminal operation.

In Serbia, on the other hand, Milosevic's courtroom performance was seen in a particularly positive light. No doubt this was due mainly to his readiness to put up a good fight against the international community and The Hague tribunal.

'Heart Of Stone'

The way Milosevic challenged the veracity of some of the victims' accounts also revealed his lack of empathy for their suffering. Commenting on that topic a year later, principal trial attorney Sir Geoffrey Nice recalled a woman who testified to having witnessed the killing of her own children. Milosevic was said to have shown no feelings whatsoever for her. In a 2007 interview with the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji, Nice stated that "Milosevic had a heart of stone."

According to Tromp, "the trial proceedings revealed Milosevic as a man who refused to see the consequences of his political actions, defending in court the very views that had led him to engage in multiple conflicts." Indeed, she gives us a vivid portrait of a man seemingly capable of running a war with one hand while signing peace agreements with the other.

The international community, or its representatives for the Balkans, including Lord Carrington, Jose Cutileiro, and Lord Owen, do not escape criticism in Tromp's book. They are depicted as having supported the ethnic division of Bosnia from the very beginning, and thus effectively furthering the Serbian nationalist project.

Tromp's book documents the last six years of Milosevic's life in a Scheveningen detention unit, where he appears to have enjoyed the respect of other prisoners. Notably, ethnicity did not appear to matter much among these alleged Serbian and Croatian architects and perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and mass crimes. Upon Milosevic's death, some of his fellow detainees signed a joint condolence letter. They included former foes like Croatian General Ante Gotovina and several Bosnian Croat commanders.

Tromp's book is certainly not meant to finish what was interrupted by Milosevic's death -- there can never be a final verdict in a court of law. But it does provide unique insight into key decisions and turning points on the road to war in Yugoslavia, and Milosevic's undeniable and direct role in those events.

"The record of the trial provides material from which individuals can draw their own conclusions and be untroubled by the lack of a rubber stamp," Tromp concludes.

Her book is a remarkable achievement, an inside account of arguably the most significant war crimes trial since World War II, and should prove crucial in countering the culture of impunity that still predominates in the Balkans.

The views expressed in this blog item do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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